So A Northern Feminist (Me) Marries Into A Southern Family

Three years ago I married someone who so happened to grow up in rural Georgia. Prior to this, my knowledge of the South was limited.

Sure, I went to the South on occasion and I knew people in the South: Mainly Southern feminists and racial and queer justice advocates living in urban areas. The majority of my knowledge about the South was confined to knowing exactly how to drive to its abortion clinics, the dossiers of the terrorists with track records targeting them, and who the brave people are willing to engage in clinic defense.

Beyond that, I was not particularly interested in engaging. I was both a product of my environment and, by virtue of my laziness and relative tunnel vision, an active participant in creating that environment for others.

It is fashionable in some circles I run in to make an outrage porn show out of legislative oppression in the South. Largely the purpose is to capture attention and raise money for national organizations. As a matter of activity, those types of national organizations primarily hold self-congratulatory events for Northerners in the North and Californians in California.

A good number of progressive people make their jokes about how Southern secession would benefit the country, which basically means they are just as guilty of dehumanizing and throwing people away as those segments of Southerners who actively do wish to restrict the rights and dignity of people on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation (these people very much exist and hold at least a modicum of power in all regions of the country, by the way).

Before my spouse, to say nothing of before we moved from Capitol Hill to Virginia, my life experiences didn’t point me toward deeply probing or questioning these practices.

In hindsight, I can say barely engaging with Southern people and understanding Southern culture deeply limited my potential as an organizer, as a feminist, and as a human being.

Some of my prejudices were just trivial. After one nightmarish experience with grits at a YMCA camp in Wisconsin decades ago, I had closed myself off to the possibility of cheesy grits — a major clown move.

You could forgive me for my ignorance of the South and say it was because I just didn’t have time to learn, but that’s far too generous for someone who has always cared deeply about politics. Of course I had limited time, but even though I’ve always kept a full plate, I still managed to spend a good portion of my hitherto adult life reading books, watching The Twilight Zone, and agonizing over busloads of Mr. Wrong. I had time; I didn’t use it.

The plain truth is that it’s easy to spend your life interacting with people who think like you and talk like you, or at least think and talk a lot like you. Further, people like me who spend time working for diversity and equality and justice don’t necessarily have it all figured out in our progressive circles.

It would be arrogant and totally untruthful to say I understand the South today. I don’t. However, I have learned many things in the past few years. The best are related to cuisine because cobbler and cheesy everything, but I’ve also been pleased to experience and begin to understand the strength and persistence of progressive activity and values in the South — even in the one-room, all-white church out in the country I’ve been as surprised as anyone to attend (scratch that, my mother is probably still shocked enough to burn a hole in the Minnesota snow).

What I have learned most of all is that I have so much more to learn, and that this learning will only benefit my work toward equality and justice. The more time I spend in the South the more I am genuinely curious to know what the Confederate flag means to the people who fly it. (This is not to say I think it’s acceptable; I don’t support the continued use of symbols, language, mascots, team names, and the like that signify discrimination, hatred, or oppression, even if the people using them claim it has nothing to do with that.)

I have strong opinions, yes, but even more that that, I have a strong desire for equality. Progress toward equality isn’t going to come about through conversations with people who generally see the world as I do; it’s going to come through courageous conversations with people who don’t. In order to truly be conversations, that means listening as well as talking.

A white, progressive friend remarking upon the Black Lives Matter movement noticed a tendency of her white, progressive friends to defriend people on Facebook who were saying racist shit. We all have our lines to draw and are the best judge of what those lines need to be in order to take care of ourselves (I defriended an abortion opponent from my high school who made a nasty comment about me during my pregnancy, and have never looked back). Still, there are some conversations that don’t violate what we need but are merely uncomfortable.

This is a profound point that applies to conversations about discrimination and the desire for social change. If we really want to be change agents, we need to engage with people we know who have different views — even views we strongly disagree with.

Which brings me back to my new Southern family and this deeply personal opportunity I’ve been given to learn more about the South. I’m learning, and frankly sometimes the simple act of listening is scary and hard as hell. And yet I continue.

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Babies Exposed Online! Privacy And The New Mom

Tearing through the finish line is something you’re supposed to do with triumphant arms in the air, running as fast as you can, but this is me nearing the end of my pregnancy so I’ll take this this brief respite from waddling to the bathroom to blog about the pressure to post photographs of one’s baby online.

Previously, I made a wildly unpopular decision to not post pregnancy photos to Facebook, and to opt out of baby bump and pregnancy mania digital voyeurism in general. Now I anticipate virtually everyone who knows me and wants to see BABY PICTURES SO MANY BABY PICTURES OF A BABY IN A HAT AS SOON AS I GIVE BIRTH AND THEN ALL THE TIME FOREVER is going to look at the screen and scream once more, because I have some pretty negative feelings about the pressure to post baby photographs online.

Here are the issues, as I see them:

Encouraging and respecting individuality, individual expression and free will are some of my highest values, and this extends to my initial thoughts about parenting. As I see it, my baby is going to be her own person and it’s one of my jobs to create as much space as I can to encourage her to be herself. This is especially poignant to me as a feminist expecting a daughter in a world that objectifies women and girls. My contention is not her participation in digital culture itself: I understand that as she gets older she may pose for and post photographs online. However, I tend to feel that in a digital space those are choices for her to make on her own, not choices for me to make for her.

Social networking photographs are forever. It seems we are in an unprecedented time for digital representations of childhood. When I was growing up, there was no permanent search engine trail of photographs in the tub waiting to someday be discovered by a recruiter looking you up before a job interview, or someone trying to hurt you. This doesn’t mean people should hide from having their photos put online, but as a future parent I am concerned about making permanent digital mistakes on behalf of a child I want to be her own person. On a separate, but related note, political hero Krystal Ball famously said the following when racy photographs from Facebook were leaked online during her 2010 run for Congress:

But I realized that photos like the ones of me, and ones much racier, would end up coming into the public sphere when women of my generation run for office. And I knew that there could be no other answer to the question than this: Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere. Sooner or later, this is a reality that has to be faced, or many young women in my generation will not be able to run for office.

Granted, baby photos are not sexual, and I don’t plan on trying to restrict my daughter from using social networking sites when she is of age to do so. In fact I agree with Krystal: People have to face up to our pictures and our social lives online, especially women of my age and lower, and a societal inability to do so will lead to negative political consequences. But I draw a strong distinction between someone posting photographs of herself and having a digital trail created for you by someone else without your consent.

And how many people who look at your digital presence online would you invite into your home? During the early days of life, beyond the Internet, new babies are seen by the people closest to you. People you invite in your home. People you make an effort to go see. Social networking has changed this equation, and I’m not sure for the better, especially for someone like me who maintains an Internet presence for political purposes.

This is not an attack on people who post baby photos online, which includes most of my friends with kids. I don’t judge you. Further, this is not an attack on mothers in the style of anti-feminist troll Katie Roiphe, who suggested that moms who put their children’s photos on their Facebook pages are struggling with a toxic loss of identity.

This is concern that intrusions upon my privacy, which I have experienced by the barge load during the process of pregnancy, will soon extend to a baby I want to protect. I know this thinking is very unpopular, and it is probably impossible to have a completely non-digital baby, especially when good people I care about are already begging. In any case others will probably take and tag their own pictures whether I like it or not. And for all I know, perhaps the process of having a baby and parenting will make me want to share photographs online all the time. If there’s one thing I know right now it’s that I don’t know how I am about to experience parenting. I believe preferences and viewpoints can change and that ability is a sign of strength, not weakness. But at this moment as I waddle to the finish line, I can say:

It makes me sad that so much of pregnancy and caring for a newborn — incredibly private moments — seems to have turned into visual digital performance for other people, one that can easily be objectified and made permanent without consent.

Why I Am Not Posting Pregnancy Photos To Facebook

I am a pregnant woman. Never in my adult life have I had fewer rights under the law, more intrusive comments and questions from people in the public space. I don’t need to be objectified any more than I already am. This is not a body for you to glance at, scroll down, expand the window, draw your own conclusions about and “Like.”

That is why I am not posting pregnancy photos to Facebook.

We, as a culture, live in public. I, as a human being, made a strategic decision to live in public several years ago. I believe that a woman telling her story has the power to change society.

That is why I rely strongly on personal narrative, because I want you to know I’m proud to be pregnant and pro-choice, I’m proud to be pregnant and an eating disorder survivor, and I want you to be proud to be whoever you are and tell your stories without shame — whether you relate to my experiences or not.

So why am I drawing the line at pregnancy photos?

Because I want to share my pregnancy in the way I experience it and choose to share it, not in a way for others to see it and choose to interpret it.

Because carrying a wanted pregnancy is an act of immense love and sacrifice that is, at its core, an astonishing and sacred experience of beauty. For me. This time.

Others’ experiences are, I’m sure, different.

I am fortunate to have, to be able to have, a loving spouse with whom to share doubts, fears, glee, joy and stomach troubles during these most private of times.

I am offended to imagine breaking the spell of our intimacy as a couple and family, and my integrity to sense of self as seen fit to share by posing, anticipating others looking at me and calling it “cute.”

A number of friends have begged for photos. I know you mean well. I know you want to share this time with me. I am happy to “Like” your pregnancy photos if you choose to share them with me. I encourage you to be happy that I am sharing this time in my life on my level.

If you are itching to honor me during this time, or do something quick online to lift my spirits because I’m pregnant and my back hurts, I will point you directly to the Meet the Press website where you can, in solidarity, share your alarm that recently they had one token woman against reproductive rights and four men discussing the new six-week abortion ban in North Dakota, the most restrictive abortion law on the books. By presenting reproductive rights as a matter of public morality, mainly as judged by men, rather than the lived and incredibly visceral experiences of individual women, the mainstream media is colluding in the massive infringement of my civil and human rights.

When the silencing of people like me in mainstream media and public policy is so extreme, it is hard for me to get excited about the voyeurism of cutesy pregnancy mania on social media. It is hard for me to believe the pressure to perform for the camera and the pressure to keep my mouth shut about my human rights are not interconnected.

Maybe if we all get together socially and “Like” one other’s pregnancies it will be okay. But it’s not. One of us might find ourselves pregnant and in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then, in the name of someone else’s abstract notions of morality enforced by the state, one of us might die. Or have a forced C-section. Or be incarcerated or detained because we were pregnant.

I refuse to be a smiling snapshot of this awful era for pregnant women. Opting out is my act of difference. Speaking out is my act of defiance.