The new feminists
These Northern Nevada women don’t just complain about the state of the nation—they’re doing something about it
“The fact is that American racism and the classic neglect of poor people has been washed before us in an apocalyptic flood."M ake it stop. I can’t cope with one more teenage girl explaining that feminism is dead now that women have achieved full equality.
No matter that there’s never been a woman president or vice president in the United States, that only nine of America’s Fortune 500 companies are run by females or that a U.S. Department of Labor study from 2003 shows that the average female worker makes only 78 percent of what the average male worker earns. For a woman of 25 who works full-time, year-round—taking zero time off to raise kids—that’s a shortfall of more than a half-million dollars over a career.
It’s not that women are less educated, trust me.
Even though more women than men complete high school and go on to college, a study on “Gender Poverty Disparity” published in the June 2005 Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, notes that in the United States, women make up 61 percent of minimum-wage workers. The number of women living in poverty has always exceeded that of men, and that gap is widening, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Men head the corporations that underpay women. Men make decisions to send our children to war. Do these guys listen to women? Sure, if women say what men want to hear. President Bush wouldn’t even stop in front of his ranch while Cindy Sheehan, mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, camped out there.
What’s a woman to do?
That’s what I asked five women who’re similarly frustrated and often downright angry. Their answer had nothing to do with hating men or undergoing sex-change operations. Instead, these activists are doing their part to reclaim media, recruit women to leadership positions, advocate for reproductive rights and, perhaps most importantly, educate young people to realize that the work of achieving gender equality is far from complete.
These women gave me hope.
Reclaiming the media
It’s a half-day of a half-day of kindergarten, so Jessie, 6, is still home at 8 a.m. Bonnie Turnbull, mom and writer, puts on a CD with German music. Jessie sings along. She says she liked Germany—where her dad served in the U.S. Air Force, and her mom played flute in the town band.
After experiencing Sept. 11, 2001, from the family’s overseas home, Turnbull felt an outpouring of sorrow and support for the United States. Sympathetic memorials were held and candles lit. There was also an undercurrent of fear.
“Our band leader said, ‘The Big Bear has been awakened,'” Turnbull recalls. “An older woman was walking down an alley, shouting ‘Krieg! Krieg!’ She thought this meant a world war. … You have this perception that the life you live will be the life you will always lead. But things can change quickly.”
Turnbull thought about what she could do.
“This seemed much bigger than me,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ll do what I do, do it well and channel that.'”
Her husband’s military service ended, and the family came back to the United States.
Turnbull, a former teacher with a master’s degree in education, had begun work on a book, historical fiction, intended for young people. The project was sparked by the memory of a former female student, who’d held up the class’s history text and complained, “There are no girl explorers in this book.”
Turnbull set her tale in New York’s garment district, around the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. She reread accounts of the 146 teenage girls, immigrant workers, who were trapped in the factory building as a fire broke out on March 25, 1911. With no way to escape, and no way to extinguish the fire, the girls began leaping to their deaths from the ninth floor of the building.
The tragedy exposed conditions in U.S. factories and led to a massive uprising and many social reforms.
“I started to see how tragedies could turn around and have a ripple effect,” Turnbull says. About a year ago, Turnbull and her husband took a trip to Zimbabwe, visiting a friend in the Peace Corps.
“When we stepped off the plane, I immediately felt a huge sense of intimidation from government officials.”
She’d heard about the oppression by the country’s authoritarian capitalist government. Schools and newspapers were shut down. The government cracked down on labor activists. Police made brutal arrests, burning and bulldozing homes and communities.
“It made me deeply value living in our democracy,” Turnbull says. “I came back and started registering people to vote.”
She began talking to people in city parks and at Artown events in 2004.
“I’d never liked proselytizing,” Turnbull says. “But this was a much bigger thing. I wasn’t trying to get people to vote for a particular party, though, and people seemed genuinely pleased that I was doing this.”
She connected with the leaders of MoveOn.org and began to feel that her activism required more than just registering people to vote. But she was frustrated by redundancies and lack of communication between progressive activist communities.
“How can we have power if we are fractured into so many pieces?” Turnbull asks. “We can’t do business as usual. We need to step outside our own interests and create a common vision.”
It doesn’t help that the national media, Turnbull says, often serves to numb the public.
“It focuses all our attention on the latest national crisis. The crisis is usually out of our control, and we’re left feeling incapacitated, a habitual onlooker.”
As it turned out, a new media forum already existed in Reno—albeit in dormant form.
The Reno Indymedia Web site, renoimc.org, a non-hierarchical citizen publishing forum, had been started more than a year ago. But it wasn’t being maintained.
“I thought that maybe this was something I knew how to do,” Turnbull says, “something I could fit around having a child at home and a busy schedule. Something I could integrate into my life and make a difference.”
Now she posts stories and recruits volunteers. Turnbull cites a desperate need for a competent PHP programmer to help create a more “responsive” site—as well as lay reporters defined by Turnbull as “people who don’t consider themselves professionals and who have a story to tell.”
Last week’s Reno Indymedia front page included stories about Reno activists taking a bus for Saturday’s anti-war rally in San Francisco, as well as a letter addressed to readers about the possible closure of the Plateau Road access point to Hunter Canyon and Mount Rose Wilderness.
“If we can follow Northern Nevada news and learn how we can have an impact here,” Turnbull says, “the IMC will have done its job.”
Janet Serial remembers the day she began calling herself a feminist. It was March 20, 2004. She’d been at a conference in Las Vegas with some of Nevada’s best-known women’s rights activists.
Serial had been a warrior for women’s equality for years, as an activist in many organizations. She founded a health and welfare committee as part of the NAACP and worked with the Nevada Women’s Empowerment Project. Still she refused the “feminist” label.
“In black communities, we didn’t use that word,” she says, chuckling. “In black churches, it’s a pretty dirty word, not socially accepted.”
It took that 2004 conference on “Dismantling Racism” for Serial to gain a true appreciation for the word “feminism.”
“They spoke of feminism in a way that was inspirational to me,” she says. “They spoke in terms of action and pro-action, empowerment and system change—ways to get women involved in civic engagement.”
Serial, a state employee and Sparks mother of four, is now president of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. She attributes her tireless commitment to women’s rights to her grandmother, a fierce Creole woman from Louisiana who worked as a domestic in the Louisiana governor’s mansion and who valued education, sending her children to boarding schools in New Orleans.
After the family moved west, Serial, the oldest of 11 children, graduated from a Reno high school and went on to become a first-generation college student. She graduated from Grambling State University of Louisiana and moved back to Reno to help the black community by working in social services.
“In our family, the personal is the political,” Serial says. “We’ll have long debates on labor issues, racial issues. My uncle was in the Black Panther movement, and we often talk about the differences between his generation and my generation.”
In this generation, Serial argues that things are getting worse for women.
“In all aspects of oppression, women are more oppressed now than they were in my mother or my aunties’ days.”
Serial fears that the situation is made worse by our failure to acknowledge it.
“Everyone thinks that equal opportunity and equal pay exists and that women have equal opportunity,” Serial says. “It’s scary. They don’t understand that it doesn’t exist. They don’t see it. And how come they don’t see it?”
Serial sees it—across the socio-economic spectrum. She’s seen discrimination directed toward low-income women who may be treated poorly by people who are supposed to be helping them.
From a systemic viewpoint, things have exponentially worsened. Sweeping welfare “reforms” have cut TANF grants and childcare credits, so it’s not unusual for women to have to work two jobs to pay for child care and cover the rent. Also gone are the funds that once gave low-income women the opportunity to get a post-secondary education.
Now, it’s no college degree and no way out of poverty for low-income women.
At the other end of the spectrum, Serial’s first trip to the Nevada Legislature in 2001 was an eye-opener.
“I was watching how these male senators would dominate the women legislators,” she said. “And these were strong women. It said volumes to me about the need in Nevada, that powerful women could be relegated to subservient roles, disrespected and treated, by powerful male legislators, in condescending and even rude ways.”
Where can change begin?
Serial says that change has to start in a surprising place—from within progressive organizations themselves. Oddly enough, many groups that fight for social reform are still dominated by men, with women doing behind-the-scenes support work. Serial’s currently working to recruit more women into her labor union. She’s been a member for 20 years but only became active about two years ago.
“Unions are the most chauvinistic organizations I’ve ever seen,” she says. “They have little use for women.”
Female representation involves more than inviting one token woman to sit on a board of directors. Serial calls this the “illusion of inclusion.” If a group wants change, it’ll take a few women—and they’ll need to recruit others. That’s what Serial’s been working on in her union.
“Now that we have a few more women involved, we can have more of a voice on resolutions and policy,” she says.
Serial often re-examines what she thinks she knows about politics. Women need to do this—and to create spaces to honestly discuss the work that needs doing.
“We need to think strategically. What problems are we going to take ownership of? What changes do we want to see? … I’d like my children to be whatever they want, to be able to make choices not based on race and class but on their desires and needs.”
Witnessing the self-destruction
We’re living in the most repressive political environment that Jennifer Ring, a UNR political science professor, can remember.
First, there was the golden decade of goodness: “My life was twisted and limited by being a girl in the 1950s. In a certain sense, my life has been recovering from that decade.”
The 1960s: “All hell breaking lose. Everything always seemed disastrous.” And the Reagan years: The polarization of the U.S. economy and the undoing of many civil rights gains.
But this decade surpasses it all. Assaults on civil liberties. The inextricable mess that is Iraq. The certainty of ultra-conservative control of the U.S. Supreme Court for a long, long time.
“I’m just hoping that the Republicans self-destruct because they’re clearly being so inept at everything,” Ring says.
The federal response to Katrina, For example.
“The fact is that American racism and the classic neglect of poor people has been washed before us in an apocalyptic flood,” Ring says. “It’s been brought to the world’s attention by an angry god. To me, this is Noah’s Ark, the Titanic—it’s a flood, a deadly one, and what it’s washed to the surface is what our political climate would like to keep hidden, the victims of our wealth.”
Ring hopes a cover-up won’t wash with the American people.
“If the administration chooses to repair the wealth with its customary handouts to friends, I would hope there would be a horrified response,” she says. “That’s something that, if it isn’t handled right, could explode.”
Ring’s feeling down, and she doesn’t think that her psyche is to blame.
“This is a really depressing time. It’s the environment, which is repressive in the classic psychoanalytic sense. It’s destroying the spirit.”
This semester, Ring is teaching a course on the history of political thought, starting with the ancient Greeks. She’s also finishing a book, Stolen Bases: How Women Lost Baseball, her favorite of the three she’s written.
One of Ring’s students completed a research project on the undermining of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, a pattern that’s repeated itself.
“She found that one of the ways you undermine feminism is by making its history disappear,” Ring says.
It helps to vilify women who fight for equality. Feminism has long been decidedly “uncool” for young women, Ring says. Another student, “a tough athletic woman,” told Ring if she mentioned the f-word, “friends rolled their eyes and made sarcastic remarks.”
But every now and then, something happens that forces inequities into the open. The recent disastrous flooding might have accomplished that, as many of the victims were of the poorest stratum of society—women.
“Now we have, bubbling to the surface, blood, mud and corpses,” Ring says. “If the horror isn’t enough to evoke a response, we’re a pretty pathetic nation.”
Get Sue Malby started on a subject—from U.S. Supreme Court nominees to the demonization of Cindy Sheehan—and you’re likely to get an earful.
Malby, a middle school special education teacher who lives in Washoe Valley, considers herself an activist of the sort who makes her feelings known whenever luminaries come to town.
“When Darth Vader was in town, I was there,” she says. “I go to things and hold signs—that’s one thing I do.”
Malby hadn’t been active in political causes since the Vietnam War. Then, five years ago, George W. Bush was running for his first term as president. Malby says she’s not a “die-hard Democrat” but more of a “die-hard who’s the best candidate.”
She educated herself on candidates and issues, then reached a conclusion worth sharing.
“I was trying to tell people that [Bush] was evil,” Malby says. “He was out to do whatever he could to make himself look good, himself and his oil buddies and Halliburton.”
No one listened—not her friends, not her family.
“My father asked me what I thought of Bush. I told him, and he voted for Bush anyway. Then came Election No. 2, and people were listening—"My father wouldn’t vote for him a second time.”
Yet Bush won, and now Malby’s concerned that tragedies like hurricanes in the southern United States will be an excuse to place more of the nation under direct federal control. Just as Sept. 11, 2001, served as a catalyst for the sweeping increases in law enforcement abilities in the USA Patriot Act, Hurricane Katrina might be an excuse to “draw the reins in tighter.”
“I’m scared,” Malby says. “I’m looking into special education jobs in Canada. … I’ve lived through Nixon and through Reagan. This is worse. There are as many reasons for Bush to resign as there were for Nixon—but you’re never going to see him do it.”
The appointment of two conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court will have implications that last for decades. Malby not only fears the roll-back of women’s rights to privacy concerning medical issues like birth control and abortion—but also a retreat to a stone age when sexual harassment was accepted as a woman’s due for competing “in a man’s world.”
Malby worked in construction and experienced sexual harassment in an era when women were expected to put up and shut up.
“People my age took a long time before we realized that we didn’t have to put up with all that,” she says. “Harassment can make you feel pretty small, especially when you think that men were within their rights to do what they did.”
She can’t imagine useful decisions being handed down from a right-leaning court.
“The Court hasn’t been liberal for a long time, but it hasn’t been neoconservative either,” she says. “I can’t believe anyone would want to go back 30 years when men made all the decisions and women were just basically, I don’t know what to call it, slaves? That’s not the right word.”
Or maybe it is.
Bending the arc
Katy Chandler-Isacksen is seven months pregnant. She and her husband are working to expand a Reno charter school, High Desert Montessori School, so that next fall it offers middle-school courses.
She considers this working within the system for change. It’s one antidote to the disillusionment that’s overwhelmed her since Election 2004.
“To be honest, what I realized was the saddest thing for me is my sense of utter helplessness,” she says. “I’ve always been politically active. But after the election and continuation of all the policies I feel strongly against—and the continuation of the war? How can regular people have a voice? It seems like government is a total sham.”
Chandler-Isacksen feels as if fewer opportunities exist for the democratic process to function.
“From war to environmental policy to civil rights, women’s rights to energy policy—everything I hold dear in my life is on the chopping block. … Rich people get richer, and poor people get poorer.”
After the world gathered to support the United States in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Chandler-Isacksen felt our leaders wasted a “tremendous opportunity … to usher in an age of enlightenment.”
“We could have taken a look at our economic policy, our connections with other nations and said, ‘How can we create a better world?’ Instead we started shooting.”
She quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Violence begets violence.”
Chandler-Isacksen hasn’t hung up her activist hat. She plans to work on campaigns of candidates who will “do the work that needs to be done.” And don’t discount the power of education.
“The biggest thing I’ve been doing is working with young people, as a teacher, on the actualization of each human being. I went from doing really big political work to focusing on individuals.”
She’s optimistic that justice will eventually prevail. Another King quote that encourages Chandler-Isacksen: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“I really believe that,” she says. “I don’t feel a despair that nothing will ever improve. I think the future bends toward justice. That’s what I see for my children.”