Teaching our Kids about Women who Kick Ass: *Rad American Women A – Z*

Every once in a while a children’s book comes out that gives me the urge to run to my nearest bookstore and buy a dozen copies, so that I can hand one to every child in my life. When I first encountered Rad American Women A – Z, I had precisely this urge. Until I sat down with my son at bedtime and read these stories of women athletes, artists and activists and activists, I hadn’t realized how deeply satisfying it was to talk my son about issues that matter. Within our first fifteen minutes of engaging with the book, we talked about sexism, beauty norms, and slavery.

Written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, Rad American Women profiles a historic North American woman for each letter of the alphabet. It features names that many of us will easily recognize (Carol Burnett, FloJo, Patti Smith) as well as names that were new to me (Lucy Parsons, the Grimke sisters) In short, it presents compelling woman role models (something all of our children need), and introduces conversations about inclusion and representation. I’m so grateful to have had a chance to talk to Kate, the book’s author, about her vision for this book.

Page18JB: When I introduced this book to my six-year-old son, his immediate response was “Aw, why no men?” We’ve had a number of conversations about sexism and gender, but I had a hard time finding the right words to explain why it’s important to document and recognize women’s history. Do you have any advice?

Kate: First of all, I absolutely love that you read it with your 6-yr old son. This book is for girls, yes, but it’s absolutely for boys too. And I love that he asked that, because it inspires dialogue, and that’s just what we want this book to do. Yes, the questions that children ask may be challenging for us—as parents, caregivers, teachers, etc—to answer, but it’s so incredibly crucial that we do the work to answer these questions. And it’s so crucial that kids even get to ask. In the introduction to the book I made a point to address the importance of finding inspiration in all kinds of people, even the ones who don’t look like you. So to some degree, the answer to your son’s question is there: “These women are American heroes, and they’re part of all of our histories. We can find inspiration in the stories of all people, no matter who they are.”

Beyond that, though, my advice to parents, etc, faced with this kind of question, is to encourage the questioner to begin paying attention to how gender is and isn’t represented. A great place to start for young people might be money—look through a stack of bills and talk about whose face is on them. What do you notice? Why might there not be any girls? Why might it be nice to have a girl on money? The WomenOn20s campaign is taking off right now, and there’s a fantastic video that addresses this exact topic.

I’m also the mother of a son, but he’s 19 months old, so we haven’t had these talks yet.  My daughter gets it, and recently, upon learning that her dad is a feminist too (“Really daddy? You’re a feminist too?” “Yup!”) she spread her arms wide, threw back her head, and proclaimed “MY PARENTS ARE FEMINISTS!!!” I’m excited for the challenge of raising my boy, and teaching him how to navigate the tricky terrain of gender and gender expectations, because it is absolutely complex and crazy for boys too.

Page20JB: One thing that has surprised me about this book is that reading it with my son has been incredibly conversational. The other night, we didn’t start bedtime until 9 so I told him we could read three of the entries from Rad Women. Three pages later, I looked at the clock and it was ten-thirty. For us, reading it has been an ongoing project that’s really different from reading a typical story book or chapter book. We have to pause for conversations about Big Things like rules, slavery, and integrity. I’m wondering how you imagined children and their families would engage with the text.

Kate: I love hearing this! So great, and I think one of the wonderful and unique things about the book are the myriad ways that you can approach and experience it. I don’t necessarily imagine that people will read the whole thing, start to finish, if they’re reading it to a young person. I mean, they certainly can! But if you’re reading to a child, it is very likely that you’ll be stopping along the way to discuss. My daughter and I have been doing a letter per night, and aren’t going in order. She likes to flip through, look at the images, and then choose a woman to read about.

Page8JB: Another thing that surprised me was that the entries inspired conversations about racism, classism, and ableism just as much as sexism. For instance, only three sentences into the letter A (Angela Davis), I paused to answer a whole lot of questions about afros, and wound up discussing their historical significance and cultural beauty norms, etc. The book feels very naturally intersectional, but I wonder what process you might have gone through to achieve that.

Kate: First of all, your son sounds like an amazingly curious and awesome kiddo. I love that he’s asking these questions—imagine if all children were allowed exposure to these complicated issues at an early age, and were then allowed to ask questions. And yes, I define the KKK in the first sentence of the book. In a bio about Angela Davis no less. Race, class, ability, sexuality—it’s all in there, because it’s all connected. I recently encountered a woman in a bookstore who was buying several copies and she told me “I can’t wait to teach my niece about intersectionality!” And I was like YES.

As the writer, the intersectionality part came easy, at least in terms of addressing it. I was lucky to get my feminist schooling in the Women’s (now Feminist) Studies department at UC Santa Cruz, and vividly remember my first quarter, where I was thrilled to take a class with Bettina Aptheker whose lectures never ignored the connections between race, class, gender, and ability. Now as for how to break all that down in 300 words that a kid can read and process—that was the challenge.  I tried to approach it all in an open and honest manner: how would I explain this to my kid? Often the simplest explanation is best. How do you explain the KKK? Well, they were a group of racist white men. How do you explain that Bessie Coleman couldn’t enroll in aviation school? You say they wouldn’t accept a black woman. I also had help from my fantastic editors, Michelle Tea and Elaine Katzenberger, along with many friends who read along the way.

Page42JB: Something that my son has loved about the book is the way the women often appear with an object or in a pose that reveals what they were famous for. My son likes to stare at each picture for a while and then guess. I got to explain to him what a typewriter was, and he guessed that maybe Lucy Parsons was famous for “being fancy”. The bold style of the images is such a perfect match that it seems inevitable, but I’m curious at what point different stylistic decisions were made–how did the look of the book evolve?

Kate: Miriam and I agreed that we wanted the images to be as dynamic and varied as possible—we didn’t want just portraits, but we also didn’t want everyone to be in motion. We wanted a mix. We looked at many images of each woman, and Miriam selected ones to base the paper-cuts off of. We added the objects for some to help readers connect to what the woman did—microscope, tennis racket, guitar, etc—and to add more texture and variety. Once we decided to collaborate, Miriam was off and running, and would text me pictures of the paper-cuts as she created them. That was thrilling! I loved getting texts and seeing these amazing pieces of art, and I was always, always struck by how well she’s able to capture the spirit and energy of each woman.


JB: Do you have an entry you are particularly fond of, maybe one that you hope readers notice or pay special attention to?

Kate: Well, X of course. That’s a special one because it’s so different from the others, and it’s a place for readers to kind of pause and think. It was emotional to write, for sure—I definitely cried while crafting that one, both because it made me think of the thousands of women whose contributions remain invisible, but also because of the hopeful aspect of the entry, as it looks to the future. My hope is that it expands the reader’s perception of the book and all its meanings by personalizing it. That entry is a favorite for many people—I know Miriam’s 8 year old daughter reads it over and over, and my daughter loves to look at the images, pointing out which ones are “her” and which ones are “me.” I especially love that she’s never ridden a skateboard, but she still chooses that image as one that’s “her”!

You can purchase your copy of Rad American Women A – Z from City Lights Press, or ask your local bookseller.

poster 26 things

Speaking of Rotten…In Response to Time’s “Sorry, Emma Watson”

Earlier this week, Emma Watson gave a speech to the UN that launched HeForShe, a campaign designed to mainstream feminism and attract male allies. Watson’s tone was careful as she reminded her audience that “feminism by definition is: ‘The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.’” She went on to enumerate ways that the oppression of women also hurts men and to point out that currently no country in the world can claim that they’ve achieved full gender equality.

It was a speech that I would have thought only MRA Trolls would take issue with, but yesterday Time Magazine ran an article titled “Sorry, Emma Watson, But HeForShe is Rotten for Men” in which author Cathy Young argues that “feminism in its present form has too often ignored sexist biases against males, and sometimes has actively contributed to them. Until that changes, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.”

This is a strange argument to level at a speech that focuses largely on how men suffer when they are not valued as parents or allowed to express their feelings. Young is unable to articulate precisely what HeForShe should be doing to directly support male allies; the most specific complaint she offers is that Watson didn’t use any of her 12 minutes to call out man-hating feminists. According to Young, misandry is a pervasive problem in the feminist movement, and yet she’s unable to provide a single compelling example of it.

For instance, Young asserts that “It is true that in the 1970s and 1980s, feminist challenges to discriminatory, sex-specific laws helped end formal preferences for mothers in child custody matters. But as fathers began to fight against more covert anti-male biases in the court system, most feminists sided with mothers.” Apparently, neither Young nor Time Magazine thinks this statement requires any kind of elaboration or data. But I can’t help but wonder who Young refers to when she says “most feminists”. A few people she met in the eighties?

Young goes on to complain that the women’s movement has neglected male victims of abuse. She writes, “Despite several recent high-profile recent sexual assault cases in which the victims were teenage girls, disturbing cases in which boys were victimized — by other boys or by girls — have received far less publicity and sparked little outrage.” You’ll note that Young has provided live links to prove her point. But click on the example of boy-on-boy violence and you’ll see a story about a thirteen-year-old who was hazed. The example of girl-on-boy violence links to the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who assaulted an autistic boy. She’s comparing these examples to the Steubenville rape case, but of course there is no comparison. The Steubenville story gained traction because on so many levels it revealed how systemic rape culture is: there were multiple perpetrators, and both the community and the justice system initially jumped to the defense of these perpetrators. Furthermore, Young’s examples connect to a larger problem about which we actually are having a national conversation and taking action. It’s called bullying. This is its own problem, and it happens to be outside the scope of feminism.

All of this brings me back to what might be the strangest part of Young’s essay: it’s title. By what logic is feminism “rotten for men”? Young of course works very hard to prove that there are some man-hating feminists out there (she still hasn’t shown me any, but she’s tried), but no matter how far I reach I can’t quite grasp what men risk losing via this movement. These guys who are taking selfies and tagging them #HeForShe, they actually look pretty happy.

I can’t help but think through some parallel titles, e.g. “Marriage Equality is Rotten for Straights” or “Civil Rights is Rotten for Whites”. Really, when you get down to the basics of allyship, isn’t that beside the point? I mean, say I’m a straight person (I’m not, but let’s just say) putting a sticker in support of marriage equality on my car. I’m not doing so thinking “What’s in it for me?” And if, later that day, I park in the grocery store and someone catches sight of my bumper sticker and gives me the finger, I don’t conclude “Damn, I really wish the gay rights movement would address the problem of how straight people get harassed sometimes. Until they take up that issue, I just can’t sign on.”

And here’s the kicker: Emma Watson’s U.N. speech was specifically designed to invite more people to the table, to engage them in the conversation, to look more deeply at how the oppression of women negatively impacts all world citizens. For some reason (we know the reason: click bait) Time and Cathy Young decide to arrive at the table, insult the hosts, and attempt to turn the whole thing into a drunken brawl.

For this and so many other reasons, I’m ready to boycott Woody Allen

I’ve been baffled by Woody Allen for most of my adult life. In 1996, as I watched Everyone Says I Love You, my stomach turned at the sight of Woody Allen getting it on with Julia Roberts.  I was only nineteen at a time, and not especially critical of any film that entertained me, but this didn’t strike me as high art, or even effective comedy. It seemed more like the wet dream of an aging man who had the money and the clout to bring such dreams to life.

Two years later I wasted my money again when I went to see Celebrity. In this film Allen enlists a younger and better-looking doppelganger—in this case played by Kenneth Branagh—to go through the same tired routine, but this is little consolation. And then a year ago, I couldn’t escape the publicity campaign for To Rome with Love. Every preview and interview contained the same clip, where Greta Gerwig’s character attempts to convince Jesse Eisenberg’s character that he will like her old friend from college:

Is there a woman in the world who would reference her friend’s “sexual vibe” as a selling point when talking to her boyfriend? After over half a century of screenwriting is this the best dialogue that Woody Allen can write?

Don’t even get me started on all of the friendly prostitutes who populate Woody Allen’s films.

And yet it seems that no matter how many times Woody Allen has written the same tired story, which is at best clueless and at worst misogynistic, Hollywood actors happily sign on, and critics offer mild praise, shrugging their shoulders and saying “well, it’s not his best.”

And then today I read Dylan Farrow’s open letter which details her sexual abuse, at the age of seven, at the hands of her adoptive father.  As an American, I suppose, I should give Woody Allen the benefit of a doubt. But as a woman and a mother, I’ve seen plenty from this man, and I am ready to say: enough. I don’t need to see his face anymore, or to spend my money or hours of my life on his stories. Even without these allegations, his films on their own have given me enough reasons to boycott his future endeavors.

It strikes me that the world has done plenty for Woody Allen, and to cut him off now—even without a judge and jury—would be no great crime. If we all get fifteen minutes of fame, then Woody Allen has had hours of it. He’s had his chance to leave his mark and then some. While I don’t presume that the amount of fame in the world is finite, I do wonder what other stories might have been told, what other voices might have been heard with the money that’s gone to fund Woody Allen’s filmography in the last three decades.

So when Dylan Farrow describes the panic she’s felt reliving her abuse every time she sees Woody Allen’s face “on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television” I feel like, as a country, can’t we get together and offer her a little solace? Can’t we make him go away, or at the very least let him fade a bit?

In Response to Maria Kang’s ‘Apology’: Moms Need to Eat

ImageSo, I may be coming into this discussion a little late, but I recently started reading about Maria Kang. She’s the one who posted the above image on Facebook. After it went viral, she posted what she called her “First and Final Apology”, addressed to her so-called “haters”. I’ve included it below.

I’ve been getting an influx of new followers, emails and comments (on my profile pic) recently. Some saying I’m a bully, I’m fat-shaming and I need to apologize for the hurt I’ve caused women. I get it. SO here’s my First and Final Apology:

I’m sorry you took an image and resonated with it in such a negative way. I won’t go into details that I struggled with my genetics, had an eating disorder, work full time owning two business’, have no nanny, am not naturally skinny and do not work as a personal trainer. I won’t even mention how I didn’t give into cravings for ice cream, french fries or chocolate while pregnant or use my growing belly as an excuse to be inactive.

What I WILL say is this. What you interpret is not MY fault. It’s Yours. The first step in owning your life, your body and your destiny is to OWN the thoughts that come out of your own head. I didn’t create them. You created them. So if you want to continue ‘hating’ this image, get used to hating many other things for the rest of your life. You can either blame, complain or obtain a new level of thought by challenging the negative words that come out of your own brain.

With that said, obesity and those who struggle with health-related diseases is literally a ‘bigger’ issue than this photo. Maybe it’s time we stop tip-toeing around people’s feelings and get to the point. So What’s Your Excuse?

(Here’s the original post on Facebook.)

First of all, um, that is not an apology.

Instead of apologizing, Kang is basically claiming that anything offensive we might see in this image reflects our own self-loathing and has nothing to with her message or the image itself.

Maria Kang, you are acting as if you posted an inkblot and inside that inkblot we saw the darkness of our own souls.

But that is not accurate. You posted an image with a clear message. The clarity of that message is what makes it effective. It’s what made it go viral and no doubt jump-start your career. Here’s what the image + words say to me:  

  1. You are incredibly fit and incredibly thin.
  2. You are a mother of three.
  3. Because you are incredibly fit and incredibly thin, and a mother of three, other women have no excuse to not be similarly fit and thin.

A and B are fine, but C has some implications that offend me.

C implies that if my body doesn’t look like yours, I need an excuse; I need to defend myself, to ask forgiveness. Why? Is it my job to be small, to take up as little room as possible? Is it my responsibility to be as beautiful as humanly possible at any cost? For whom?

C also implies that no excuse that I can offer is valid. It suggests that your body, as pictured in the photo, is an achievable goal for most women. The discussions I’ve seen online reveal that plenty of people share the view that all women could achieve that level of thinness without significant risk to their health. (When I look over the comments that follow your apology, I note that many of your fans dismiss your critics (you prefer to call them “haters”) as lazy and fat, e.g. on January 19: “FAT ASSES got angry ahaha Keep inspiring people Maria. And keep making fat asses angry. After all it’s a good sign that they get angry although they express it in an un-healthy (again) way by hating on you lol!” ) Beyond that, they assume that thinness itself is a sign of health; the thinner you are, the healthier you are. I question that assumption.

And yet it’s true that my interpretation of your photo reflects more than the image itself and the words you chose to accompany it. It also reflects a lifetime of cultural messaging that my body will not be acceptable until I’ve tamed it, until my legs and underarms are hairless, my stomach is flat, and no part of me jiggles (except of course, my boobs). But I did not “create” this reaction, as you suggest. No, my reaction is the tension between the knowledge that these messages are wrong and the reality that they still have the power to affect me, to make me feel inadequate.

Still, I don’t want to be stuck in that negativity. I want to be free of it. I want to eat until I’m full—healthy delicious food that contains fat, calories, protein, and nutrients. I want to make cookies with my kids AND eat them. I want to run in my tight pants without worrying if my ass looks too big to the people behind me.