The Eleanor Club

Change/Transformation, Feminism, Leadership, Life, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Wins

My friend Dennise and I were talking a few months back about women and power.  We’re both mid-career professionals, were both unemployed, and having weekly conversations about our job search, and what it means to be older women looking for positions of responsibility and influence.  Those conversations birthed The Eleanor Club, a place where women can speak directly about their areas of influence, personal ambition, and what it means to be a woman with power.

Our first meeting was last week and it was extraordinary.  Dennise and I had NO idea there was such a craving for this conversation!  Woman after woman came up to each of us and said “I’ve been wanting to talk about this, ask questions, explore what it would mean to expand my influence and own the influence I have.”

We had no idea, but we should have.

The current power paradigm we live in – authoritarian, hierarchical, individualistic – is becoming more and more problematic.  While it is not clear whether women and men are biologically inclined to use power differently, my personal experience is that women are often more interested in power as a way to connect, not dominate. While this offers its own set of challenges, it also opens the door to an multitude of new directions we could grow as a race and individually.

Women are actively seeking ways to exert power, to leverage their existing influence, and grow their circles.  We are learning to own our ambition, to state loudly and clearly that our agendas are critical to the health and well-being of our families and the planet.  At our first meeting, when we opened the floor for women to speak about the issues closest to their hearts, we heard about

  • community development on the micro level,
  • the importance of civil discourse in theory and practice,
  • amplifying the voices of women in the music industry
  • building a conversation around an all-year school schedule
  • the criticality of local and state elections,
  • finding ways for working mothers to serve as elected officials,
  • and how to protect and heal our environment.

Even though the conversation was entirely unscripted and unexpected, we can clearly see the seeds for robust discussion and action on a wide-ranging and deeply connected group of concerns.  In those moments, I realized that all the women in that room had tapped into something revolutionary – our mutual commitment to actively  and directly influence change through OUR decisions, our ideas, and our actions. It was an unforgettable moment.

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Who’s promoting what?

Feminism, It's Personal, Rants, Social Justice, Uncategorized

If “fat” people wearing bikinis are promoting obesity, aren’t slender people wearing bikinis promoting eating disorders?  When I I watched this video and the lovely young narrator said that people have actually told her that her body, in a bikini, promotes obesity, I was speechless.

In a world where thin-ness is worshiped as a religion, the beauty and diet industries rake in billions of dollars yearly, a young, fat woman in a bikini is the problem?  Why is no one on public beaches screaming about thin people and how their bathing suit clad skinniness is causing eating disorders?!  If you want to be all science-y about it, there’s probably at least as much evidence that the pursuit of the “thin ideal” causes eating problems as there is that fat girls in bikinis promote obesity.

There is just so much wrong with both of these pictures I don’t know even know how to start.  Well, that’s a lie, I do know.  Where we start is by saying all this bullshit about fatness and skinniness and ideal beauty is exactly that – bullshit.  If I accept someone’s judgment about my body, some external bogus description, then I accept there is some ideal, set by some mysterious “something” and I’m not meeting it.

Fuck. That.

I’ve spent far too much time in my life hating my body for no good reason.  I’m fortunate that I didn’t hate myself enough to develop an eating disorder, harm myself, or give it all up and decide to live on cookies and kool-aid.  I’m lucky that I was able to struggle through a bunch of personal work and come out thinking that my body’s pretty great – healthy, strong, flexible, attractive, and doing a bang up job of getting me through life.  But hell – it took me most of my life to get here and I’m not 35 anymore.

I see so many women who expend SO much time, energy, and intellect fighting their bodies, and I feel so much grief and anger for all of us.  It’s all a distraction – a way to keep us focused inward, fighting each other and scrambling for crumbs, instead of holding each other up, and using our gifts and talents to make our world more wonderful. It’s a distraction and we’ve accepted it – we’ve internalized it to the point that we use it to put ourselves down.  No one else needs to bother, we do it all on our own.

I’m not buying it.  I don’t buy the labels, the sizes, the judgments, none of it.  No, you don’t look fat to me.  No, you don’t look flat-chested, or thick-waisted, or dumpy or short or lanky.  You look beautiful.  Focus on your health, be well mentally and emotionally, take care of yourself physically, but determine your own beauty.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t look stunning in a bikini.

Twitter-fied

Change/Transformation, Feminism, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel confused most of the time.  This constant confusion is a result of an ongoing and bewildering mixture of wondrous, joyous, human decency with stomach-churning vileness, and moments of deep, personal sadness.  I find it impossible to determine whether I’m merely “having a rough few days/weeks/months” or if (as the beautiful, late Stephen Covey put it), I’m simply experiencing the “permanent whitewater” this shapes our lives in this time.

I believe that most of my bewilderment comes from a mental picture of my past as a more calm and stable period but I also know that probably isn’t true.  Even if it were, it all began to change in 1998 (17 years ago, almost a third of my life now) and hasn’t been “calm” since.  Everything I read tells me that most people experience some amount of upheaval throughout their 20s and 30s, and that shit really gets tough in the 40s.  But I can’t shake this nagging suspicion that somehow, this is a result of me making wrong choices, that I’ve somehow brought it, whatever “it” is, on myself.

So that’s  my personal baggage, this belief that I’m simply incapable of creating some idealistic, perfect, shining life where I make only the best decisions and experience only the best outcomes.  And yes, as I wrote that, my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.  It’s astonishing sometimes, how writing down the words in my head highlights their obvious silliness.  But….onward.

Today, despite my personal griefs and hiccups and grouchiness, looking through my Twitter feed brought my feet, head, heart, and hands into a smiling, happy place.  All the posts about the two recent SCOTUS decisions, big wins for Obama and the citizens of the US, rainbows and hearts everywhere, more scorchingly incredibly quotes from the Notorious RBG, the incredible bravery and grace of Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate flag, reminded me that things are not always going to hell in a very, very small container.

Today I am reminded that people can be brave and generous and kind and loving, at least for a few moments.  It is true that there are many, many people who feel the opposite about all of these events but for the moment, I’m not thinking of them.  I’m thinking about all my dear friends whose marriages will now be recognized in the entire country, all my students who will be able to get and afford healthcare after they parole, the women who look to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), Sonia Sotomayor (2009), and Elena Kagan (2010) as glorious role models and shining feminist spirits, and now, to Bree Newsome, whose act of nonviolent civil disobedience helps mark our ongoing struggle to address the deep wounds of racism in the US.

Thank you, Twitterverse, for making my soul lighter and my day better.

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Romance vs Reality

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Feminism, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

I write about incarcerated women and corrections education because I see how prison (and all its attendant systems) does so much more harm than good.  The prison system was designed by men, to dominate and control other men, and those practices are even more traumatizing and harmful for women.  Women were never a significant part of the prison population until the early 90s.  Between 1990 and 1995, the number of women’s prisons in the US more than doubled, and by 2010, women made up nearly 7% of the prison population.

There are many reasons for this – ‘tough on crime’ laws, including mandatory minimums and three strikes, and increased criminalization of drug use and non-violent offenses.  What I see is that women are punished for making bad relationship decisions, being poor, uneducated, black, and having untreated mental health and addiction issues.  Literature and reporting reveal that the vast majority of women in prisons have suffered some form of abuse, with at least 25% of them reporting abuse while they were minors.

What does all of this have to do with romance?  Given all of these factors, it becomes almost impossible not to romanticize incarcerated women.  It is far too easy to think of them as innocent victims, as people at the constant mercy of men, systemic abuse and injustice, and their own broken-ness.  While all those things may be true, casting them in the role of victims and martyrs is a mistake.

When we cast people as victims and insist that that they think of themselves in that way, we remove their autonomy and their responsibility for their choices.  This is such a crucial component of working with women that it bears repeating:  We must not cast incarcerated women in the role of victims and martyrs.  When we do, we remove their autonomy, and their sense of responsibility for their own actions. Accepting their responsibility, regardless of the why, is a key step toward understanding that they can make different choices.

My advocacy does not mean that I wear blinders, or rose-colored glasses.  I am keenly aware that the women I work with have committed crimes, wreaked havoc, hurt people, destroyed their families, and left swathes of devastation in their wake.  I speak with them openly about this, because having those blunt, uncolored conversations about accepting responsibility must happen.  If they are to heal, we cannot pretend that they didn’t do terrible things, or that those choices somehow weren’t theirs.

Before I started working at CCCF, I leaned much more toward the romantic view of incarcerated people – men and women.  I had vague notions of unjust imprisonment, oppressive systems, and innocent people being victimized.  I realize now that even though those things are sometimes true, society still has to manage people who endanger themselves and others.  We don’t always do it well, which is why the system needs vigilant watchdogs and advocates and transformation, but we need to do that work with our eyes open and unclouded by romantic ideals.