Women’s Bodies, Women’s Worlds

A few years ago, in the midst of the Downton Abbey craze, my friends and I discovered another show that’s flown a bit more under the radar. If you’re a PBS watcher, you probably know Call the Midwife; if you haven’t caught it yet, this is the best woman-centered drama you’re missing. (Link to episodes here.)

For the past four seasons (Season 5 just premiered this week), Call the Midwife has consistently brought great storytelling and great history as it recounts the experiences of young midwives in London’s East End in the 1950s and early 1960s. Based on the memoirs of Jenny Worth (voiceover by Vanessa Redgrave), the show follows several young midwives who live in a convent called Nonnatus House. The midwives include both lay midwives and nun midwives, each of whom brings a distinct perspective and background.

What’s remarkable about this show is, in no small way, how it brings attention to the every day, banal facts of life for working-class women in postwar Britain. Their situations may be unique, living in the East End with the rise of the National Health Service after the war, but there is a universality to the experiences as we watch women endure the physical challenges of hardship, navigate labor and delivery, rejoice and weep with them and their families, and just take time to pay attention to the reality that has long been women’s lives.

Women’s bodies are at the center of it all in a way you won’t see on any other medical drama on television. Whether it’s a storyline involving a young unwed mother who gives birth on her own and tries to hide it (resulting in complications from a partially-undelivered placenta), stillbirth, an older woman suffering from a prolapsed uterus, or the complicated, yet everyday fact of labor – women’s bodies matter here. It’s a remarkable thing.

As a historical drama, we watch as practitioners debate the shift to hospital-based maternal care by physicians, or the increased use of gas as a pain relief option for childbirth. The show has looked at what happens when things go wrong, never shying away from considering what happens when someone gives birth to a child with Down’s Syndrome or, most recently, one of the first thalidomide babies.

Call the Midwife is at once phenomenal storytelling and some of the most important attention to women’s history brought to popular culture today. In looking at what might seem like the most mundane of all topics – maternal health in postwar Britain – the producers and writers have tapped in to one of the most crucial topics of our time. Call the Midwife is arguably the most important feminist shows on television today: here, feminism doesn’t appear as a frightening thing, but an empowering and necessary force. Don’t miss out on this – and spread the word.

Using the Force: How Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaches us to stop fearing women in combat

Let’s forget about Luke Skywalker. You and I both know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not really about him at all. For once, a man gets to be little more than a convenient plot device in a movie. I know I’m supposed to care about Luke, but my childhood hero was his sister, not him.

The Force Awakens is really a movie about why we should stop fearing strong women, and women in combat in particular. The Force Awakens is, of course, the classic tale of good versus evil, and struggle for who will dominate the galaxy. The Force may be strong on each side, but the Resistance has something the First Order doesn’t: equality. Ultimately, The Force Awakens is a morality tale on the importance of gender equality in achieving organizational success.

Women’s presence in the First Order occurs on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it basis, not unlike the Supercut of all the Non-Leia Female Dialogue in the original trilogy.  In The Force Awakens, the First Order loses because they can’t be bothered by women. At minimum, they haven’t thought much about recruiting women to their faction. Look carefully, and you’ll spot few women in the First Order’s ranks. Captain Phasma is the most obvious, but she doesn’t get to do much other than hold a gun and play tough. Phasma’s even a problem, because she gives in to Finn with no second thought. She might get a little more to do in the next film, but since she didn’t really do her job well at all in The Force Awakens, it’s likely that Kylo Ren has other plans for her. Beyond Phasma, if you pay close attention you might notice several women hidden amongst the rank-and-file desk clerks in the control room on the StarKiller Base (one female Storm Trooper even tells Kylo Ren there’s a problem in the prisoner area). That’s it.

Finn’s own behavior illustrates the First Order’s clear cultural bias of classifying women as a subordinate, protected group. When he meets Rey, his first impulse is to “rescue” her from the fight she’s in, and his second impulse is to grab her hand and guide her, shielding her from the First Order’s attack. Finn assumes Rey needs protection, and never quite lets go of this belief at least as long as he’s conscious. If you cut the lines “Are you okay?”, I’m pretty sure Finn would have basically no speaking part left. Finn is so preoccupied with his inculcated sense of men-as-superior-beings that he doesn’t even get to witness Rey’s final stand, in part because he believed she needed protection.

Finn’s protective instincts towards Rey demonstrate the results of growing up in a culture that views women as second-class citizens. Although he wants to extract himself from this culture for his own reasons, he never quite breaks the habit. While there are female Storm Troopers, Captain Phasma is even an anomaly – the exception, not the rule.

It’s clear that the First Order is a culture that thrives on both assimilation and masculinity within the ranks. When most members in the organization wear the same body armor and helmets, it’s easy to ignore women’s presence at all. It’s okay to have a woman in a leadership role like Captain Phasma because regulations keep her gender in line. Women’s presence is permissible, but in order to serve in combat they must cover their gender identity altogether. Consequently, Finn doesn’t think about the fact that a woman might be able to fend for herself because he doesn’t ever see women in combat as women, but only as Storm Troopers. Erasing women’s gender identities under helmets might seem like a great way to create a post-gender binary culture, but not so much.

Storm Trooper uniforms make gender assimilation possible, but that makes things better for men, not women. Women can be Storm Troopers because they can be hidden: it’s possible to forget (or never know) which Storm Trooper is female, which means their presence doesn’t jeopardize male domination. Even the more visible female presence in the StarKiller Base command center is non-threatening because the women there always take orders given directly by men.

From top to bottom, the First Order’s women are there to do the men’s bidding, from Supreme Leader Snoke to General Hux and Kylo Ren. In the First Order, men – and these men in particular – make the decisions and drive the action.  It’s the ultimate boys’ club, in which Captain Phasma can be tolerated because she’s not really necessary and thus doesn’t disrupt the balance in their force.

In contrast, women are key to the Resistance’s success from start to finish. Women participate as women: there are no indications that anyone fears someone’s gender will hamper a mission. All participants are valued. Working as a whole, in the Resistance, the feminine and the masculine balance and team together to achieve success. (Not so in the First Order, where everything is about masculinity and the only remotely feminine thing about the First Order’s leadership is the length of Kylo Ren’s hair.)

From the beginning, it’s clear that General Leia Organa is in charge, leading a “mission to restore peace and justice to the galaxy”. While that could be an anomaly, once we arrive at the Resistance you can’t help but notice women everywhere. It’s Kylo Ren’s worst nightmare, given that he lives in a world dominated by male power. In the Resistance, women plan and execute missions, present around the drawing board, in the fighter planes, and on the ground. To the Resistance, women are essential, from General Leia Organa on down.

The Resistance has a lot to teach the U.S. military, which has been trying to fit women into a heavily male-focused organization since World War 2. Since 1948, women have been legally permitted to serve in all military branches, but only now are all gender-based combat restrictions being eliminated. In the process, the latest political commentary has turned to the question of drafting women. All of this seems to frighten many Americans, who assume women aren’t strong enough to perform in combat, or find it inappropriate based on traditional gender roles. While no one wants a draft (we haven’t had one since the late 1970s), even the spectre of making women register for Selective Service is enough to send hardened politicians wailing in the streets to bemoan the fate of the nation’s women.

It’s enough to make Leia’s and Rey’s eyes roll. Star Wars may take place light years away from here, but we could learn a lot from the gender culture in the Resistance.

“Not Less a Mother”: Military Motherhood, 1953 and 2015

The woman who leaves her children to work for them, the woman who makes herself available for civil defense, the woman who serves in a governmental position of responsibility, as well as the woman who participates in Reserve activity, is not less a mother for having done so. – Major Alba Martinelli Thompson, 1953 (1)

Today, CNN published a powerful image: a group of soldiers in uniform, breastfeeding their children. In the midst of a year when women continue to make history for breaking barriers in the armed forces, one of the things that is powerful about this image is that it simultaneously underscores the ability of women to be both soldiers and mothers. This dual identity has long been contested; it wasn’t until the 1970s that mothers could remain in the service at all after having children.

In the 1940s, as Congress debated the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act to allow women a permanent place in the military, the question of motherhood was on the forefront of many minds. For instance, Carl Vinson (D-GA) argued “we should not put anything in the law which should cause them [servicewomen] to hesitate getting married or to raise a family; on the contrary, we should encourage it.”(2) Today, that might sound very forward-thinking, but in 1947 and 1948, that really meant “let’s make sure women have a way out so that they can become wives and mothers.”

For the next 30 years, the assumption that women would become wives and mothers – and thus lose interest in working – underwrote all military policy regarding women in the services. Until the 1970s, motherhood in all forms (childbirth, adoption, or by marriage) meant automatic discharge for servicewomen. In fact, following Vinson’s comment, the head of the Women’s Army Corps confirmed that yes, a provision in the act that allowed easy discharge for women was designed in case of pregnancy. A few years later, President Truman further clarified policy with Executive Order 10240, which authorized women’s discharge if she:

(a) is the parent, by birth or adoption, of a child under such minimum age as the Secretary [of the branch] concerned shall determine,
(b) has personal custody of a child under such minimum age,
(c) is the step-parent of a child under such minimum age and the child is within the household of the woman for a period of more than thirty days a year ,
(d) is pregnant, or
(e) has, while serving…given birth to a living child

For 25 years following this, women consistently found themselves out of the military and thus out of work as soon as motherhood entered their lives. While some women may have welcomed or expected this policy, many others challenged it consistently through the years. In 1953, Army Reserve Major Alba Martinelli Thompson, a World War II veteran, became the first to challenge her discharge upon pregnancy.

Speaking in front of a Congressional Committee to challenge pregnancy discharge, Thompson’s words 62 years ago continue to resonate today, reflected by the thousands of women who have combined motherhood and service to their country despite what was so long deemed impractical and impossible by the military and both the executive and legislative branches.

“The woman who leaves her children to work for them, the woman who makes herself available for civil defense, the woman who serves in a governmental position of responsibility, as well as the woman who participates in Reserve activity, is not less a mother for having done so. Not because we love our children less, but because we love them more do we carry our energies and our hopes beyond the walls of our homes…Each woman serves her family who makes use of her skills and talents to bring about the greater security of her home. Some do it from within the home; some from without.”

Major Martinelli Thompson passed away two and a half years ago at the age of 94. Although she lost her bid to retain her Reserve status after becoming a mother, she went on to an active life of public engagement. She’d likely be pleased to know how much things have changed.

(1) Armed Forces Reserve Act: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate,‖ (HR 5426) 82nd Congress, Second Session, May 1952, 19-20.
(2)House Armed Services Subcommittee Hearings on S.1641, February-March 1948, 5667; Publications of the U.S. Government, Record Group 287 (RG287); National Archives Building, Washington, DC (NAB).

Think, think, think

After a nearly 2-year hiatus, I’m back.

I think.

The school year starts soon, and with it, my fifth year of teaching high school. My goal this year is to write more about my approach to teaching, resources and ideas I’ve found, and check in regularly with progress on making a book out of the dissertation.

Stay tuned.

Student, Again

Three days into the AP Summer Institute, I have to confess that I’m 92% loving it, if I can actually give it an A- like that and make it sound legit. Really, it’s turned out to offer quite a lot for me. Over the past two days, I’ve gotten some great ideas for activities, been able to reconcile (mentally) how I want to do some things, and gotten so much more confident in my understanding of the exam and scoring the written portions.

Sure, there are moments when my eyes glaze over and I surreptitiously glance at the book I’m reading on my iPad while keeping one hand on my binder, but all in all it’s been a good experience for me so far. I’ve acquired a half-dozen textbooks, review books, and document readers (all mailed home). I’ve also gotten the prized possession: all essay questions (DBQs and FRQs) since the early 1970s. These make me incredibly happy. I’ve also created three units, although they’re much smaller chronologically than what we do in our program. Consequently, they’re not terribly useful for my purposes, but just the act of creating them has made me focus a little on the issues at hand and helped me feel confident about where I’m going.

I’ve gotten some good reinforcement that my instincts on grading are on the right track, which is also helpful. Having my mentor this year really helped with that, but there’s always that bit of nervousness as you step off on your own.

And tonight, I wrote an essay for the #5 question on this year’s FRQ. We were each tasked with one of the four essay questions at random and told to spend 5 minutes planning, 30 minutes writing, exactly as our students would. This puts us in the students’ shoes, although some of us may still have unfair advantages, like being able to type it, being fast typists, and being better at BSing than most high school juniors. Also, if you happen to get the question from the time period of your own dissertation, that may be a little bit of a gimme, too.

Even though it’s a Cold War question, I did panic a bit. It asks you to focus on Cold War foreign policies of 2 out of 3 presidents listed. I chose the 2 I knew I could do best with, but as I sat down to brainstorm I panicked a lot. All I could think of was “Korean War!” – which is a great start, but that’s about it. Happily, spending 5 minutes on the matter gave me time to come up with 4 or 5 items for each president, plus I was able to freewrite a paragraph where I could work out my ideas about comparing and contrasting the two as directed. By the time that timer went off, I was ready to go.

Tomorrow, I go before the AP grading fires. Will let you know how I do.

Sidewalks Have a Purpose

I love staying in places where you can easily walk to restaurants or shopping or the drugstore. Washington, DC, for instance, was great for that – I spent 2 weeks at a hostel and walked everywhere I needed to go, or rode the metro. Boston, NYC – other great places. But mostly, I travel with my car, so I’m definitely missing my self-transportation option this week. I decided that in the long run, it was best for my sanity to fly to Atlanta (instead of doing the 12-hour drive and adding more miles to my car). And yes, the hotel has a shuttle (it just needs to remember that it promised to pick guests up from the AP Summer Institute at certain times).

But why not walk? It turns out that this hotel’s idea of a gym is more like an April Fool’s joke. The photo looked great, but it’s something like 2.5 pieces of equipment set in a glass-enclosed passageway to the (over-chlorinated) pool and hot tub. So for today, I decided walking would be the best way to work out: upon return from the session, I grabbed my phone and plastic cards and hiked over to Target. Google Maps tells me it’s a mile away, located on the opposite side of the mall I visited yesterday. And sure, it’s about 90-something degrees out there and humid, but there are sidewalks that are going sadly unused.

I like adventures. It took about 25 minutes to get there and 28 to get back, only because i decided I’d cut through the mall for (A) air conditioning and (B) to shorten the distance (which I might not have actually done, come to think of it). And now I have fruit, sparkling water, and – most importantly – cases for my contact lenses. I managed to bring extra contacts, but not any cases to store my contacts in at night. #fail!

In the end, I’m happy to report that I’ve surpassed 10,000 steps for the day, gotten some Vitamin D and some strength training, and plan to join some other folks for dinner in 30 minutes. So far, not bad for Day 1.

Which means I should probably mention the AP Summer Institute, right? Right. It’s okay so far. Almost everyone else in the class will be teaching AP US History for the first time this fall – which I suspected, and which is a little disappointing. They all have more teaching experience than me (save one person), but I’d hoped to hear some ideas and strategies for this course in particular. But that’s the funny thing about AP Summer Institutes: I’m taking the “new teacher” version, which is designed for anyone who has taught the course for zero to three years.

The main goal so far – aside from getting everyone else’s syllabi past the College Board’s syste, a formality – is that we each have to prepare a unit. We got a list of unclaimed units, and the idea is to create a term list, 2 possible essay questions, 10 multiple choices, a DBQ, 2 primary sources, and anything else we want. No one wanted 1492-1607, so I took that.  Ironically, while everyone else is running scared from this content area that the test will start to do more with in 2 years, I feel good with it – probably because I teach Atlantic World History.

Which means that my unit is done. Tomorrow I’ll move on to the Era of Good Feeling, since I need to prep that section for my course anyway. But I confess: I finished the day a little frustrated and out of sorts (but not too badly so). I hope all these unit materials will be useful, but I really need to focus in on some things for me, which I may end up doing the rest of the week anyway.

For now, though, I relax and ignore any thought of how in the world I’ll transport all these textbooks back to MO with me…

Where the Peaches Grow

If June was the month of finishing the school year and teaching summer school, July is the month I travel. That all started today with a flight to Atlanta for an AP Summer Institute, which I’ll start tomorrow. So for now, I’m contentedly ensconced in my hotel room.

I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and I have a thing for hotel rooms. While I’m here for work purposes this week, trips like this aren’t – well, maybe they’re just not like business trips might be. I don’t feel like it’ll be a stressful week, but rather an opportunity to learn and plan and even get some downtime for myself. I have a TV to myself, a room to myself, and plenty of books to keep me company (not to mention almost every episode of Dr. Who that I own).

Yes, I promise I’ll actually do the school-related stuff. The rest is just for off-hours. Or for when I should probably be sleeping.

The hotel is lovely and has a free shuttle to the school where I’ll be all week. It was also pretty close off the MARTA line: so close that I figured I could walk the 0.7 miles between station and hotel, but my Google Mapping efforts showed me that I’d be navigating an overpass that may or may not have had a sidewalk. So last week, I called the hotel and they told me it wasn’t walkable, but I could call for the shuttle.

Of course, if you tell me it’s not walkable, I have to give it a go. I walked out of the MARTA station, made my way to the main road, and discovered a sidewalk. I figured I’d see how far it got me – and voila! The overpass is being reconstructed to include a fabulous walking/bike path, so I made it to the hotel on my own two feet. Of course, I still had to wait an hour to check in – I was technically only half an hour early, but they were having some delays with housekeeping or something. This is why books are an imperative when traveling!

Of course, once I got into the room, there’s this inevitable “What now?” sense that I always have. I didn’t feel like hopping into a book or doing anything else, and was disappointed that the room didn’t have one of those standard binders with “here’s everything you need to know about our hotel!” – I (dorkily) love those things. In lieu of that, I decided to head back out to walk to the mall (next to that MARTA station). I did a lap of the upper level, lap of the lower level, grabbed a sandwich and sodas and chips and cookies to bring back to the room (supplies!), and that was that.

I think I’m ready to settle in for the week. If you don’t see me for awhile, it’s probably got something to do with the 18 books on my ereader.