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Feminism & Faith: An Interview with Sister Simone Campbell

Faith and religion can often be a dividing force in American politics.  Nobody knows that better than Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, and ringleader of the “Nuns on the Bus.”  The Nuns faced censure from the Vatican a few years ago after Pope Benedict became concerned that the Sisters were spending too much time aiding the needy and not enough time persecuting gays and protesting abortion.  Already a champion of the vulnerable, she has thrown the weight of her organization and the newfound fame brought on by their conflict with the Vatican behind progressive causes like fighting poverty, promoting universal healthcare, and opposing the Ryan budget.   WRUN sat down with Sister Simone to talk about Pope Francis, women’s leadership in faith communities, and the progressive nature of Christianity.

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Sister Simone on CNN’s “Amanpour”

WRUN:  So, a lot of people are surprised to find out about you and the Sisters, that you are these “radical feminists” and progressives.  You lobbied for the ACA, testified before Congress to keep our safety net intact.  It seems that in our culture, when you say “religion,” especially “Christianity,” people immediately associate you with hardline conservatives. 

SS:  Oh my gosh, that’s certainly true of politics!  I mean, that’s historically been one of the challenges, to be a progressive and a person of faith in politics.  I mean, it’s like “how could you possibly be that, you’re like a traitor!”  You say “religion” and people assume the far right, as opposed to a deeply spiritual place.

WRUN:  It does seem that the right seems to feel that they have some kind of a lock on moral authority.

SS:  Right, but we let ‘em do that.  That’s the thing that’s annoying to me, is that I backed off speaking religion for a while, and it was because I didn’t want to be identified with the right.  But then that ceded ground to them.  And I shouldn’t have, I don’t think.

WRUN:   You wrote this great article about Pope Francis in Time magazine last fall, and it does seem like you share a little bit of a wavelength with him about what the Church’s mission ought to be about.  Have you been happy in general with the leadership you’ve seen from him so far?

SS:  Absolutely.  I’m a progressive so I’ll never be totally satisfied, but I think that the amazing thing that he is doing, is that he’s living his faith, from the inside out… That’s huge!  He is not a fearful person at all, he trusts the spirit is alive and living among us, and he acts accordingly.  I mean, it’s a challenge.  The November Exhortation was a challenge to everybody.  It’s a challenge to progressives, and it’s a challenge to conservatives.  Because what he says there is, “We cannot be satisfied with the safety net.  What we must do is change the structure of our economy so that all will benefit and no-one is left out.”  And he talks about private ownership; the responsibility of private ownership is to hold property for the sake of the common good.  The responsibility of those who own is to share.  Isn’t that fabulous?

WRUN:  It does seem that there are some Catholics who are having a bit of sticker shock with him, that he’s not quite the Pope they thought they were going to get.  

SS:  Yes, he’s quite surprising.  I enjoy the surprise of it.

Prominent-Catholic-Newspaper-Endorses-Women-Priests-MovementWRUN:   There is one thing that you don’t agree with him on though, which is the ordination of women, and how he sort of slammed the door on that.  What do you think is really keeping that from happening?

SS:  Experience.  Just experience.  He speaks about women not as the Eve temptress, but as Mary Immaculate, and we’re neither.  We’re human beings.  And so, there’s a couple of things we need to do.  We need to have women in leadership roles, so these guys who have worked in primarily male environments have experience with us.  And that once there’s experience, then the change will come eventually, I believe.  Additionally, it’s not only about changing their definition, but I also think that we’re being called to expand how we think about ordination, and that just utilizing the bishops’ definition as the only definition I think limits the quality of service that we’re called to.  For instance, when I was the head of my religious community, it was really abundantly clear to me that many times, I served a priestly function for my sisters.  I led prayer, I heard confessions in an informal sense, I gave forgiveness, I mediated sacred mysteries, I received the vows of new members.  All those are priestly functions.  But we have, in some of our fights with the Bishops about women’s ordination, have lost sight of some of the ways in which we do serve priestly functions.  I don’t know if you know tai chi, but the idea is that if you push against something, you just reinforce it.  And so rather than pushing against, they recommend standing aside.  Find your own definition.  So that’s some of what I think we’re called to do.  Stand aside, and the new will emerge.  Eventually.  It’s not fast enough for me, but eventually.

WRUN:  You’ve mentioned elsewhere that when you were practicing law in the 70s, that there weren’t a lot of women, and you saw a lot of women lawyers trying to kind of emulate the male lawyers.

SS:  Right, when I first started, that was for sure.

WRUN:  And to some extent that’s still an issue in a lot of professions now, even.  If you were to see women be ordained in the sort of traditional sense that the Bishops think of it, what do you think they would bring to the role that would be different from the way that men do it?

SS:  Well, first of all I think that they’d have to wrestle to find the alternative… Because just getting ordained doesn’t necessarily automatically mean that you’ll do it differently.  But in that exploration, I quite frankly cannot believe that a woman would stand by and watch the pedophiles abuse and not do something about it.  In fact I was just up in Minneapolis last night and heard that the reason why the situation finally came to light there was that because the woman chancellor pushed it.  And she finally ended up resigning from being chancellor because she would not condone the fact that they were refusing to deal with it.  And she’s the one that has brought it to the public’s attention.  I think women are much less likely to cover up something of that nature, when kids are being hurt.

WRUN:  I do think we have a lot of religious women that follow us and they’re torn.  There are a lot of issues that they’re torn over both as women of faith and as feminists, and the child sex abuse scandal is certainly one of them.  In the back of their mind, they have a distrust issue with the Church, and also the fact that they have mixed feelings about how the Church views them.  It tends to get pretty confusing at times, like, “I want to be a part of this group, but does this group want me?” 

SS:  I can relate to that.

WRUN:  Do you think there’s a middle ground there?  What do you think the Church should be saying to women as opposed to what they are saying?  Because there are women who feel that they are faithful but they have key differences with the Church on issues like contraception, like IVF, and they feel that those particular issues put them at odds with the Church over their family, which is also equally important to them.  What do you think the Church should be saying to them?

SS:  I think that we have to learn that we are the Church.  We’re a piece of the Church.  It’s not them, it’s us.  And we all struggle.  I just finished doing a piece for another group, and I was talking about how what I think Pope Francis is calling us to is conversion, and we all need to be converted in some form.  And that the challenge is that the wealthy and the leadership have hidden from their own conversion, and lied about it.  And that their fear of losing power or prestige or whatever it was, led to the pedophilia thing.  And what we have got to do is to hold our leadership accountable, and I think that is what the Pope is trying to do.  They cannot hide from it.  The only way forward is through repentance.  We’ve got to find a way to weep together over what’s happened, and that so many people have been hurt either through actually being molested or abused in some fashion, or if not directly abused, then shocked.  Scandalized.  Hurt.  Puzzled.  We’ve got to find a way to atone and weep before we’ll know new life.  And I think we as women have less invested in the trappings of leadership, and have been denied trappings of leadership, so maybe our gift is to be the leaders who are breaking out of the cocoon and allowing ourselves to really weep and change.  But it’s us.  We’re all in this together.  It’s not them.  It’s us.

WRUN:  Which is a very different idea of leadership than what people think of when they think of the Church.

SS:  Oh, yeah, that’s true, unfortunately.

WRUN:  You are many things: a lawyer, a woman, a follower of Jesus Christ, a sister, a leader and an American citizen. What do you think of yourself as being first? Do you even rank those things or do you consider yourself to be all of those (and more) in equal measures?

SS:  That’s an interesting question.  I’m just me.  I’m a woman who has a deep contemplative practice.  On the good days, it all works together.  On other days, many various perspectives sort of have tug of wars, but on the good days, in that contemplative stance, it’s all one.  It’s all in the spirit.

Sister Simone and the Nuns on the Bus are the subjects of a documentary film entitled “Radical Grace” which is currently in post-production (see below for trailer).  To learn more about their work and support the efforts to bring this film and the Sisters’ messages to the world, visit radicalgracefilm.com.


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Practically Feminist

PRACTICAL FEMINISM ARTWORKby Jen Giacalone

If there’s one thing that we can say for sure about the multi-headed beast that some call Third Wave feminism (or is it Fourth Wave now?), it’s that feminism often seems like it can be whatever the hell you want it to be.  This makes it difficult for us as feminists to speak with one voice about things that are really important.  And in the end, it may be hampering practical approaches to improving things.  Feminism isn’t an idea, it’s a collection of a lot of ideas, and we’re free to argue them with one another. That’s healthy.  But feminism needs to sort out what it’s trying to do.  Right now, it feels more like a chaotic, en-masse reaction to attacks on our rights, as opposed to a positive, proactive movement.

When I first started putting my toes in the waters of feminism, I was really only interested in working on legislative activism.  I wanted to roll up my sleeves and call state senators, and put out useful infographics encouraging people to email their representatives about this bill or that bill.  I essentially limited my entire focus to brass-tacks, equality-under-the-law issues.  And it made sense to do that.  There was, and still is, so much work to be done on that front, and so many legislators trying to take away rights our mothers fought for, that it felt unproductive to get drawn into “soft” cultural issues and wrangling with feminist theory.  On my best days, I am a practical gal.

The truth is, though, that it’s useful to explore cultural issues and feminist theory because it forces us to reflect on the underlying biases of the choices that we, as well as our politicians, make on a daily basis.  Feminist theory is often the soft underbelly of public policy, and its thinking often colors the more “mainstream,” legislatively-oriented discourse.  The problem is, the continuum of idealistic feminism often yields ideas that don’t translate well to the harsh light of day-to-day living.  The policy activists and the Judith Butler disciples have to figure out how to talk to each other, because right now, it feels like a food fight: nobody’s really getting hurt, but boy is it a mess.

I recently found myself in a real, live argument with a bunch of other feminists about whether or not sex work is a particularly healthy or positive career choice.  Spoiler: my position was, “Broadly speaking, no.”  I was a little surprised at how unpopular a position this was.  I got roundly scolded for prostitute-shaming, silencing, and even being a flat-out misogynist. It was a little mind-boggling that there was more of this than there was actual concern for the very real structural dangers and problems inherent in that industry.  It may have been the moment I finally chose a label and slapped it on my sweater: call me a “practical feminist.”

“Dear lord!” I thought. “Give me back my old-fashioned public policy wonkery!”  I can tell you why we need an Equal Rights Amendment, and tell you whose office to call about it.  It’s straightforward.  But ask me whether or not a girl should take what seem like a few smallish precautions to avoid a sexual assault…?  That’s a hornet’s nest.   Many feminists argue that such advice contributes to victim-blaming.  I would never have thought that risk-reduction precluded teaching consent.  But here we are.

You find these divides throughout feminism on a whole host of issues:  Is sex work an empowering life choice?  Should we specifically do things to avoid rape?  Should someone tell Miley Cyrus to put some clothes on?  Someone besides Sinead O’Connor? For crying out loud, we can’t even agree on how we feel about the relatively unimportant matter of sledgehammer fellatio:  is it empowering or degrading?  Of course it’s Miley’s right to do it.  Don’t be mad though, at the feminists who can’t work up much enthusiasm about it.

Women are sexually harassed on the street, ogled at work, passed over for opportunities of all kinds, because for so many men, we can’t possibly be more than instruments for their enjoyment.  So, when you, as a woman, lead with your sexuality, it can be hard for a lot of people to see that there’s a person, with talents, opinions, preferences and passions, attached to it.  And it’s hard for some feminists to say, “You go, girl!” to the woman who’s choosing to do it, because it can feel like she’s perpetuating the objectification that, in spite of our best efforts to leave it in the past, is still a problem.  Short version:  it feels a little counterproductive to put your tits in someone’s face and then get annoyed when they aren’t looking you in the eye. But it’s a debate feminism is still having with itself, and nobody really has a good answer. And in the meantime, women and girls are still getting the short end in a lot of ways, large and small.

So practically speaking, what do I think would help it?  I like policy prescriptions, so I’m likely to reach for mundane things like accurate and early sex education, a gender studies requirement at the high school level, and with any luck, a loosening of religion’s stranglehold on our morality and public policy-making. Despite the fact that the jury is 100% in on the failure of abstinence-only sex education, we’re still dealing with deeply religious policy makers who seriously believe that simply not giving kids information about sex will keep them from having it.  (The irony is, most abstinence education does far more to devalue and objectify young girls than Ke$ha shaking her booty in a thong.)

Pushing for high school health classes to require a unit on consent as part of sex education would do far more to prevent rape than berating women who sometimes circulate those “how to avoid rape” lists.  Pushing to decriminalize prostitution is a far more empowering step than demanding that fellow feminists affirm sex work as a positive career choice.  Regulated prostitution appears, at least from a number of studies, less dangerous and damaging to the women (and men) in it than the system we have now, and it’s a move that a lot of feminists could get behind; why are we expending so much energy policing each others’ feelings about it as a life choice, when there are massive, practical, structural problems with it (risk of arrest, STIs, dangerous weirdo clients) that we could be working on?  We don’t have to give 100% approval to everything in one another’s hearts, we just have to figure out how to band together on productive actions.

If we’re not all at least somewhat aligned on what it is we’re supposed to be fighting for (or against), in what sense is feminism a movement?  The very nature of the term “movement” is a pretty clear.  It’s supposed to move.  Presumably forward.  Going backwards, and even standing still, aren’t options.  If we can’t coordinate, we need to at least get out of each other’s way.  It would be nice though, if we could agree on some concrete things we can DO, together, or else this is just one giant online coffee klatch, and everyone’s got a bone to pick.  It’s human to respond to stimuli, but if the response isn’t coupled with a plan, then that’s all it is.  A response.  Not a movement.

There’s work to be done, ladies, and a lot of it.  Who’s with me?


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Rebirth in Virginia: The ERA in the 21st Century

ERA

Image credit: ERA Action, We Are Women Coalition and Progressive Democrats of America

This week, activists in Virginia are working to convince their legislators to do something that has not been done in the 21st century: ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Hard as it may seem to believe, the Equal Rights Amendment, the 90 year-old brain child of suffragist Alice Paul and bastion of 60s and 70s era feminism, is still not part of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, we face the reality that in 2014, the right to equal protection, regardless of gender, is not the law of the land.

To change this, ERA activists face two daunting challenges. First, the ERA did not become law in the 1970s because it fell three states short of the 38 state (three-fourths of 50) ratification threshold set forth by the Constitution. Indiana, the 35th state, ratified the ERA in 1977. No other states have ratified it since. Secondly, when the ERA was proposed to Congress in 1972, it included a ratification deadline, a deadline that passed way back in 1982. So ERA proponents including activists from the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) have a two-pronged battle plan: 1) get Congress to approve removal of the ratification deadline (there are resolutions in the House and the Senate to do just that ) and 2) get at least three more states to ratify the ERA.

And that brings us to this week’s activity in Virginia. Virginia’s Senate already passed the most recent ERA bill but approval in the House is proving to be a tougher nut to crack. Delegate Mark Cole, Chair of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, questions the legality of the bill and has said he will not bring it out of committee to the floor for vote. Proponents of the bill hope to change that. On Wednesday, February 19, PDA will stage a call-in day in which Virginia voters can call, tweet, or email their delegates, House Speaker William Howell and/or Delegate Cole to ask them to bring the bill to the floor. in addition, there is an online petition asking Delegate Cole to bring the bill for a vote. According to PDA’s National Deputy Field Director, Andrea Miller, the petition will be delivered to the House Privileges and Elections Committee on Friday morning.

Also on Friday, activists plan to line the hallways outside the Committee room in a “silent sentinel” to send a message that Virginia citizens, particularly women, are watching what the delegates do. Friday may be the last day for the bill to be placed on the docket for this House session so Miller is hopeful that they can get several hundred voters to Richmond on Friday for the demonstration. If the bill fails to pass the Virginia House in this session, Miller says PDA will not give up in Virginia, or on their other targeted states: Arizona, Florida, Arkansas, Nevada, Louisiana and Missouri, among others.

Even though, it’s been almost forty years since a state last ratified the ERA, Miller and the other proponents are confident and determined. She calls passage of the ERA the “unfinished business” of the last century and of the civil rights movement. Though laws like the Lilly Ledbetter Act have helped give women legal options in the workplace to combat discrimination, it doesn’t go as far as an amendment could. Miller stresses that finally passing the ERA will give judicial standing to such laws and to gender discrimination cases that come before the nation’s high courts. “If we are going to lift women and families out of poverty in this country, we need pay equity. The ERA will help us get there. Finally.”

Finally indeed.

Learn more about the ERA and the three-state strategy here: www.equalrightsamendment.org


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Radical Grace, Radical Change: An Interview with Filmmaker Rebecca Parrish

Rebecca Parrish is a filmmaker with a track record for making incisive, ground breaking films with a progressive and often feminist bent to them.  WRUN Admin Jen Giacalone sat down with Rebecca recently to chat about her current project, Radical Grace, which follows the Nuns on the Bus and the other Catholic sisters in their fight for social justice and their struggle against the Church patriarchy.  Followers of the page know that we are NOTB fangirls, so the editors will not bother to hide their glee.

 WRUN:  So, I have to ask… how did you and the sisters find each other? Did you seek them out, or did they approach you?

rebecca and simone

Director Rebecca Parish with NETWORK’s Sister Simone Campbell, in the field while filming “Radical Grace.”

RP: A friend of a friend was a friend of Sister Jean’s.  So our mutual friend connected us and we thought there was a film there. Then we approached Jean.  That’s the short version.

WRUN:  Did you know immediately what the story was that you were going to try to tell or did that reveal itself over the course of working with them?

RP:  I knew I was interested in a couple of things: What it means to do social justice as a spiritual practice, and what it means to be a feminist in a patriarchal institution.

There are the two opposing concepts of spirituality that are illustrated in this story. The hierarchy is typically all about who are the insiders and who are the outsiders, who is closer to God and who is further, and how do you get to heaven. The sisters are all about how we’re all interconnected and how we need to be there for each other, and, as someone who’s not religious per say but sees value in spirituality, their story and approach to this concept of God in a really broad way really appealed to me.

WRUN:  It must be an interesting learning experience for you as a non-religious person. What is like to experience the Church through their eyes?

RP:  It totally changed my conception of what “the church” is.

WRUN:  How so?

RP:  It used to be that the hierarchy defined it for me. Whatever the pope and bishops say Catholicism is, is what it is.  Now I see that it’s the people, and the community they have built together who define it.  The sisters and other lay people have just as much “authority” in my eyes, if not more ‘moral authority,’ than many of the bishops.  Before, I just never thought about it that hard.

WRUN:  I think that’s something that would be surprising to a lot of secular folk who are a little hostile to religion in general.

RP:  Yeah, totally.  It was like, ‘Catholics believe XYZ, the pope is infallible…” Now I see that it’s all much more contested.  I think that’s part of what gives faith such a bad rap: the people on the outside take those who claim to be the representatives at face value.

WRUN:  So, there’s been a bit of hostility between “The Church” and feminism. Feminists often feel that religion, and Catholicism in particular, upholds dogma that is oppressive to women.  Do you think that this project can have some impact on the way that these groups view each other?

RP:  I hope so.  I think that secular feminists in particular have a lot of assumptions about people who have maintained their Catholicism. I certainly did. I think this film debunks some of those stereotypes.

WRUN:  What would be the one thing that you would want secular feminists to walk away with after seeing it,  if you had to boil it down like that?

RP:  Ooh, that’s always a hard question for me.  I tend to approach filmmaking more as an exploration and asking questions than with a particular agenda.  I guess I want people to see opportunities for coalitions and collaboration. I think the separation between faithful feminists and secular feminists is a real detriment to their shared goals.  It’s like a divide and conquer thing.

WRUN:  Imagine what could be accomplished if feminism and the church were both bigger tents?

Exactly.

WRUN:   What are the sisters like?  How has it been to spend so much time with them?

RP:  They are really fun.  Another huge thing for me has been seeing how they approach such challenging work with so much joy.  Maybe that sounds trite, but they really know how to party.

But I think that ties in to my interest in spiritual activism, because a huge part of what their spirituality brings to their work is a sense of lightness, joy, and resiliency.

WRUN:  Does most of the film take place out on the road with them, or is it more about what they do within their community?

RP:  It’s both.  The film actually follows three separate stories: Sister Jean’s, Sister Chris’s and Sister Simone’s stories are separate but interwoven.

We filmed with Simone at NETWORK, lobbying on Capitol Hill, on the road with Nuns on the Bus, and at her Motherhouse.

We filmed Jean working with formerly incarcerated people at St. Leonard’s house and making decisions with people at her Motherhouse.

And we filmed Chris organizing Catholics to work for church reform in parishes and leading a pilgrimage to sites of early women leaders (who have been obscured) in Rome.

WRUN:  I saw a little of Jean’s story in the trailer and thought that looked really moving.

RP:  Yeah, it is. Her story spans both her work with the formerly incarcerated and her struggles with the institutional Church.  She doesn’t always see God in how the institution operates, but she does see it in the guys at St. Leonard’s house.

WRUN:  Chris’s story sounds fascinating too.  I think the only notions that a lot of people have about women in the early church come from Dan Brown novels.

RP:  She leads the pilgrimage to the archeological sites, because women leaders often don’t show up in the written history, which was written by men. But they do show up in the art, which is a more direct source in terms of how people lived and how they understood themselves in relation to faith and society.

WRUN:  Amazing.  So tell me about Simone’s story.  Does that follow the health care law?

RP:  That’s part of it.  That and the Nuns on the Bus.  When the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) came out in opposition to the Affordable Care Act, she was heartbroken.  She and NETWORK have been working on healthcare reform for a long time. And when it finally started to look like a real possibility, her own church leadership was opposing it.

And, she knew that the USCCB could have a real influence on Catholic legislators, so she crafted a letter that leaders of many nuns’ congregations across the country signed, saying that this law was in alignment with their faith values.  They say that universal healthcare is “the REAL pro-life stance.”

Then her organization, NETWORK, is named in the Vatican censure. And to her, it’s obvious that this is payback for their work standing up for healthcare reform. As she/they become famous as a result of the censure, Simone asked, “how can we use this new fame to further social and economic justice?”

She’s very strategic. The big issue at that time was the federal budget, and Paul Ryan was twisting Catholic Social Teaching to say it supported cutting social services. So she used her new fame to, once again, be a progressive Catholic voice for change.

WRUN:  I have to tell you, we really love that story.

RP:  Yeah, so many people connected with it.  I think many secular, or unaffiliated, or “spiritual but not religious,” people connected with her kind of spirituality.  She also represented something people were/are hungry for in that way too.

And, of course, there is the progressive Catholic laity who were excited to have a positive public model of what their faith is all about.

WRUN:  Well, you could easily argue that there’s been a real failure of leadership in the political class on these issues.  Do you think Simone and the sisters are kind of filling a void there?

RP:  Yeah. I also think that progressive organizing lost its soul in a way.  It’s very materialist.  Maybe I’m getting too abstract?

 

radical groupWRUN:  Well, I think there’s something to the notion that you have these big progressive organizations that feel very corporate, because they are.  They have budgets, and staff, and PR firms, and so on.  There’s something about the way that the sisters are doing what they’re doing that is very genuine and uncorrupted.

RP:  Yes. That’s very true.

I think it’s like the humanity, the feeling of connection and interconnectedness drops out when it becomes so corporatized.  But at its heart (no pun intended), that’s what progressive organizing should be about, or that’s what motivates it, and helps people keep going when it’s tough, and builds community and solidarity.

Radical Grace is currently in post-production.  Rebecca and the Sisters are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to finish and promote the film.  If you are interested in learning more about the Sisters’ work, the film, or how to help, go visit: Bit.ly/RadGraceFilm


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Appearances are Everything: Nagasu, Wagner, and Cluelessness

By Maureen Boyd and Pattie Gillett

Over the last few days, the selection of Ashley Wagner over Mirai Nagasu has occupied casual and avid skating fans alike with charges of racism tainting the US Figure Skating Association’s Women’s Olympic Figure Skating team selection.

If you only watched last week’s competition, you saw two-time champion Ashley Wagner fall twice and finish her long program tentatively following her mediocre short program. She did not receive a standing ovation and the crowd seemed to clap out of sympathy, more than anything else.

Fans then saw 2008 champion and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu skate with few, if any, visible mistakes and receive a standing ovation from the crowd.

The evening ended with Gracie Gold taking the gold medal, Polina Edmunds the silver, Nagasu the bronze, and Wagner the pewter (a fourth place medal that is only issued at US Nationals).

At a press conference shortly after noon on the following day, Pat St. Peter, the head of USFSA, announced that Gold, Edmunds, and Ashley Wagner would be competing in the Sochi Olympics. Mirai Nagasu, despite her superior performance, would not be representing Women’s Figure Skating at Sochi.

Fans in the Twitterverse exploded with the hashtag #MiraiEarnedIt. WSJ writer Jeff Yang wrote a scathing commentary that seemed to capture the widespread and quite understandable perception that “with Wagner, silver winner Polina Edmunds and gold medalist Gracie Gold (talk about central casting fantasies!), the U.S.A. will be taking to the ice with a porcelain-skinned, blond-tressed triple-threat, any of whom will unleash a geyser of sponsorship money.”

While USFSA has almost always picked the top skaters at Nationals to make up the US Olympic team they are not required to do so. USFSA bylaws state that the skater’s “body of work” – including performance in events in the previous year – will also be factors in determining selection to the team. Defenders of USFSA’s decision point out that Wagner’s performance in all of these previous competitions surpassed Nagasu’s.

Yet, even this argument seems specious: as one fan pointed out, if one applies the body of work criteria to the entirety of the team, Polina Edmunds should have been bumped by Nagasu, whose body of work was superior to hers.

The decision and circumstances were also unprecedented in the entire history of US Olympic skating. Only four other times have the top finishers at Nationals not been named to the Olympic team: Todd Eldredge in 1992, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, pairs Jenni Meno and Todd Sand in 1998 and Michelle Kwan in 2006. All failed to perform in Nationals because of various injuries, yet were awarded spots on the Olympic teams.

And the leadership of the USFSA, Pat St. Peter and her advisors, clearly anticipated how fans might respond to their radical break with tradition. St. Peter was armed with defensive, tone-deaf talking points that appeared in an even more tone-deaf press release posing as an article on the Team USA website: “We have selection guidelines in place, that are vetted through the athlete’s committee and vetted through the USOC,… This competition is not the only event U.S. Figure Skating considers in selecting the team” and “If you look over the course of the last year plus at Ashley Wagner’s credentials, she has the top credentials of any of our female [single skater] athletes…That is why we made the decision we did, and our guidelines are posted on the USOC site.” St. Peter’s last line, “our guidelines are posted on the USOC site,” reeks of a disdain for public perception that gets to the heart of the matter:

It doesn’t matter what the bylaws say, if Nagasu’s performance was superior to Wagner’s, or if Wagner’s body of work was superior to Nagasu’s. What matters is that it did not even occur to USFSA officials to consider the obvious appearance of racism that would result from their decision to pass over a woman of color for a blonde haired, blue eyed woman. Or, if it did occur to them, they simply didn’t care. In either case, USFSA leadership displayed an astounding level of cluelessness that looks a lot like white privilege.

It’s hard to know what Pat St. Peter’s experience with people of color is, or whether or not she knows what white privilege is. People who unconsciously possess white privilege operate with a blithe certainty in and about the world: they do not experience being passed over for promotion because of the color of their skin, and thus do not concern themselves with what being passed over on the basis of skin color might look, feel or sound like. Because racism is not a daily lived reality for the person of unconscious white privilege (PUWP), the PUWP doesn’t factor in even the possibility of racism into her decision-making process, or if she does, she dismisses it, at some level, as a trivial concern.

Pat St. Peter’s dismissive comments, NBC Winter Olympics television ads already featuring Ashley Wagner prior to the decision, and the USFSA’s ongoing silence about the specter of racism* all suggest that a whole lotta PUWPs are making the decisions at the USFSA. And while the intentions of the USFSA officials may actually be purely based on a calculus of who will win the most medals at Sochi, the effect has been to create a perception, and thus a climate, that can only be perceived as racist by any person of color. When any set of decision-makers acts from a place of unconscious white privilege they necessarily re-create the climate of white privilege they hail from. That’s a climate that will be constitutionally defined by ignorance of, and insensitivity to, the concerns of people of color—concerns intertwined with experiences of racist bias. Perhaps this is why even devoted fans of US figure skating would be hard pressed to name more than two or three African American and Latino skaters to make it into the sport’s top ranks over the past thirty years.

And how does this climate of white privilege in U.S. women’s figure skating impact the women’s community that skaters, their devoted fans, the judges and other women in the sport have come to embody?

In the male dominated sports media the discourse around figure-skating and it’s spangled, make-up wearing athletes is that they and their “crazy” (read: female and feminine) sport have never been legit. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan fiasco, a“crazy” women’s figure-skating conflict that occurred between two white women of very different class positions. Some media outlets are gleefully representing the Nagasu/Wagner controversy as another example of Harding/Kerrigan-style antics that epitomizes the “hysterics” of the sport.

The only way female athletes can successfully combat the sexism that continues to exist in the world of professional sports is through solidarity between white women and women of color. All female figure-skaters– white women and women of color alike– are damaged by the insulting and derisive reduction of this sport to a series of hysterical and dramatic episodes. The clueless decisions of a few PUWPs in the USFSA are perpetuating this stereotype of women’s figure skating and sowing divisiveness in a sport that needs to remember that there are young girls of color out there, dreaming of one day becoming another Nagasu.

*The USFSA has posted a response to Jeff Yang’s story.  While some acknowledgement of fan concerns about racial bias is an improvement, we find the statement defensive in tone. We also think the fact that the Olympics team is 25% Asian American does not negate the fact that the sport as a whole lacks racial diversity.   Jeff Yang posted has also posted a rebuttal.  His rebuttal states that he did not accuse the USFSA of discrimination on the basis of race, but rather made a decision based on marketability that is embedded in racialized ideals of American-ness.


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Our Top Five Posts of 2013

by Jen Giacalone

Well, in a last and final nod to the timely passage of 2013, the WordPress helper monkeys were kind enough to send us an assemblage of our top five posts of the year.  So we thought, in case you missed any of the fun, that you might like to see what they were, in case you haven’t been at this party for very long.  They range from the totally not at all surprising to the “who’d a thunk it”… You never know what’s going to reach people.

#1) Feminism Isn’t Working and I Give Up
This rather hastily-written rant blew up like nothing we ever had before, and is still a juggernaut that sends us a stream of new visitors on a regular basis.  Someone memed the final paragraph, which is now floating around on tumblr.  Admin Jen was a bit crushed by the news cycle and how every time she tried to catch her breath, it seemed like she was hearing some other awful story about women’s rights.  She sort of had a fit.  This was the result.

#2) Why I’m A Feminist Guy
Our guest blogger, Marc Belisle, produced this very popular piece on why, as a man, he supports feminism. Marc is a great writer and after you check out his piece you should go check out his blog.   Everyone loves a feminist dude.

#3) You Can’t Invade Without a Map
This is easily the biggest surprise on the list.  It occupies the #3 Spot, and for the life of me, I’m not sure how.  Not because I think it was a badly written piece.  It’s just that… gerrymandering in Ohio is about as unsexy a subject as one could dream up, no matter how one may try to make it entertaining.  Apparently we succeeded.

#4) Honey, We Have to Talk About Your Friend Wayne.  He’s Really a Problem.
Anything criticizing guns or the NRA is a sure win.  Angry gun folk come by to tell us how wrong we are.  Thanks for boosting our numbers, guys!

#5) Tired of Talking About Abortion?  Me Too.
A piece about why the abortion issue is about so much more than just abortion.

If you haven’t been following this blog for very long, these are the “hits” of 2013 and we invite you to check them out.  It was an interesting year and we expect 2014 will be nothing short of exciting!  We don’t want to spill the beans, but we’ve got some interviews and stories coming up that we’re very excited about and we hope you’ll stick around to read them.

Happy New Year!

~Your WRUN Admin Team


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Ho Ho Ho, Here’s a Stocking Full of Man-Pain

bad-santa-charged-with-groping-18-year-old-woman-dressed-as-elfby Jen Giacalone

It’s hard to say why exactly, perhaps the holidays are making them feel resentful that loads of women are sexually unavailable to them, but the whining, the raging, and the general loutish behavior coming from the MRA camp are audible from the other side of Mount Entitlement this week.

Backing up: for those unfamiliar with the term, MRA’s are “Men’s Rights Activists.”  A sane person can look at the shifts in gender dynamics and put together that along with the expansion of what women are able to do and be, there are some things that are no longer fair to expect of men and that some things need to change.  For example, this page has previously mentioned its support for changes in divorce and family leave law to make it more accommodating to men’s changing roles in the family.

However, MRA pages are mainly dens seething with misogyny (or at least with anger at suffering under the iron fist of misandry), blaming women for all the ills of the world and claiming that men are truly the oppressed gender.  Go ahead, finish banging your head on the desk, I’ll wait.

Amanda Marcotte talks about this in a recent blog post for RH Reality Check.  The MRA community is outraged –outraged!-  at the arrest of Kevin Bollaert, who is facing 31 counts of conspiracy, identity theft, and extortion for running a “revenge porn” site.  It is stifling their free speech, apparently, to not be able to post nude photos of women who broke up with them, along with exes’ personal contact information so that they can be stalked and humiliated.

Goodness, where are my tiny violins?  I need to play the world’s saddest song for these oppressed men who are being told they can’t harass and intimidate women who no longer want to have sex with them.

Meanwhile, back at Occidental College, there’s apparently a rape epidemic, with hundreds of reports flooding into the university’s anonymous sexual assault reporting system.  Oh, wait, don’t worry, it’s actually just a douchebag epidemic.  Hundreds of MRA’s with nothing better to do decided to go and fill out hundreds upon hundreds of obscene (and obscenely false) reports on the college’s anonymous sexual assault online reporting form, in order to scuttle the system.  Why?  Because every woman who claims she’s raped is lying, and destroying resources for survivors is hilarious.

Oh wait, I’m sorry, I mean, because it’s their duty as men to protect the men of Occidental from false accusations of rape, in spite of the fact that the form is not designed to function that way.  How do you even investigate an anonymous rape report?

Really, people.  Even the Community of the Wrongly Accused thought this form was no big deal and that there was no particular reason to try and destroy it.  It’s mainly a tool for the university to figure out how widespread the sexual assault problem is on campus so they can properly allocate resources.  Their blog post about it is a more intellectual, long-form “whatevs.”

Ironically, a favorite tactic that MRA’s often use to try to get feminists to shut up about rape and sexual assault is to cry, “MEN ARE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED BY WOMEN IN EQUAL NUMBERS TO WOMEN ASSAULTED BY MEN!!!”  So, apparently, they don’t want male assault victims to get help either.

Watch out y’all.  The MRA’s have broken into the Schnapps and are marching on your town to claim it for the ManFederacy!

3x14-The-Red-Badge-of-Gayness-south-park-21273032-720-540

Ahem.

By the time I read the article about Fathers4Justice taking out an ad attempting to publicly shame Kate Winslet because she’s a single mother (“KIDS NEED A FATHER AT CHRISTMAS, KATE.”), I was ready to either smash something or try to raise money to have every last one of these guys checked for brain tumors.  They appear completely undeterred by the whole “not knowing her personally or having Clue One about how she conducts her family life” thing when it comes to telling her how to do it.  Because kids need fathers.  And women need to be told what to do.  By men.  Even when the men have no information on which to base their valuable opinions.

Which goes back to a point I’ve made before:  Most of these MRA’s are not, generally speaking, really that interested in the issues they claim to care about.  They’re just using these thing as cudgels to beat you, the feminist, over the head till you shut up.

Go visit a site for male rape survivors, or an “intactivist” (anti-circumcision) blog, or anyplace where there are people actually working on these causes.  You won’t find much misogyny.  In fact, you’ll probably find a lot of women.

So, ho ho ho, MRA’s.  You can complain and play “pranks” and take out all the nasty ads you want, but women are still going to be living wonderful, fulfilled lives that don’t include you.  So here’s a stocking full of man-pain.  Don’t scarf it all at once or you’ll get a tummy ache.


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Ride With the Nuns on the Bus

MET-AJ-1-NUNS-BUSby Jen Giacalone

Ok, not literally.  But they are the subject of an upcoming documentary film, and you can play a small part.  Let me explain.

If you follow this blog, you know that we love the Nuns on the Bus and their efforts to stand up to the Vatican and create a space in Catholicism for women’s leadership.  They are warriors for the poor, sick, disadvantaged, and downtrodden.  They are radical feminists facing down the Catholic Church, possibly the most patriarchal entity there is; a battle worth waging, and inspiring to even heathen folk like myself.

The film in progress, from Do-Gooder Productions, follows their journey as they stand up for their spiritual convictions.

Where do you come in?  The working title is “Sisters,” but the they’ve been running a contest and asking for people to submit a new title to re-christen it.  You can go do that, here, after you’ve watched the movie trailer.

And then if you want, you can pay a visit to our guest blogger Jamie Utitus’s post from last year that discusses her love for the Sisters and why they are important to feminists of faith, here.

If you want to put the Christ back in Christmas, showing some love and support to these women religious is a great place to start.