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Monthly Archives: January 2013

“She is Equal”

Today marks the beginning of President Barack Obama’s last term in office.  After taking his oath in front of millions, he delivered a speech which set the tone for his ambitious final term by promising to tackle gun control reform, immigration reform, and more comprehensive climate change legislation; however, the most memorable moment for me was when he referenced the reality that millions of girls face in our country .

“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”  

I appreciate President Obama singling out the status of the girl, and I think this reference indicates that our country is poised to solve our country’s girl crisis.  Millions of kids in this country are faced with a bleak reality: poverty, homelessness, abuse, failing public schools, and discrimination whether due to skin color or gender.

Here’s why I believe the solutions are at hand: White men will no longer be the majority of the Democratic caucus in the House as several of the seats have gone to women and minorities; congress has a record breaking 20 female senators, one of whom is the first openly gay senator in history; and a record 78 women now serve in the House of Representatives.   I believe that with the increased presence of women and minorities in our legislative bodies will come a new perspective and fresh commitment to issues effecting women and girls.

Record number of women elected to the 133th Congress

Record number of women elected to the 133th Congress

I am hopeful for the positive impact government can have on the status of women and minorities in this country, but I know that most progress towards equality is enacted by local organizations.  Last week I had the pleasure of touring one of the most effective and inspiring organizations working locally in the U.S.: the YWCA of Central Alabama.  The Young Women’s Christian Association has been advocating for the rights of women and for the elimination of racism since its founding in 1858, and has been established in Central Alabama since 1903.  Guided by the visionary leadership of Suzanne Durham, the YWCA has become the go-to organization in Alabama for women and families in crisis– whether homeless, abused, unemployed or otherwise, the YWCA offers women and children hope and a home.  As I walked the historic halls of this YWCA with Ms. Durham, my hope for the future of this community and country were vindicated as I watched at-risk women and children able to claim their power and potential through the effective, evidence based programing and services offered.

As Ms. Durham lead me through half a dozen state-of-the-art classrooms, the grim reality that faces at-risk children was evident: most live amongst chaos and suffer trauma.  The YWCA offers a place of peace and stability so that these children can thrive. You can learn more about the work of the YWCA of Central Alabama here.

Kids of the YWCA Central Alabama

Kids of the YWCA Central Alabama

Ms. Durham has led the YWCA of Central Alabama as director for more than 30 years, and has also served as the national YWCA board chair.  Under her leadership, the organization has been selected as the 2013 winner of  a national Planning Excellence Award for “Advancing Diversity and Social Change” in the Woodlawn neighborhood.  In 2007, 43% of families in Woodlawn were living below the poverty line.  The YWCA responded in force and has established a Family Resource Center, an interfaith housing center for the homeless, and a 58–unit housing initiative.  They are actively empowering this community and helping thousands rise up out of poverty.

Suzanne Durham: transformative leader, trailblazing feminist, compassionate advocate

Suzanne Durham: transformative leader, trailblazing feminist, compassionate advocate

With the YWCA, Ms. Durham has impacted countless lives in Alabama.  Sitting in her office full of tributes to powerful feminists who have come before (including her “Gertrude Stein” and “Virginia Woolf” pillows), I felt the power of those brave women and men who fought for my equality, and was humbled to be speaking with an integral member of that legacy.

Gertrude Stein on the left, Virginia Woolf on the right

Gertrude Stein on the left, Virginia Wolfe on the right

On this historical day, I am grateful for leaders like President Obama and Suzanne Durham who boldly envision a more equal world, and who are working everyday to see their vision turned into reality.

Strength, Not Size

Saturday night was the Miss America pageant, and watching some of these extremely thin contestants strut down the runway in next-to-nothing made me, in the words of Leslie Knope, “feel a lot of feelings about myself.”  So let’s talk about it.  Like many women and men, I have struggled with body image, self-confidence, and weight my whole life.  I remember only a few blissful windows of time when I was not worried about whether or not I was overweight.  I do not want this to be my reality.  Lately I have been asking myself questions like, “What is a healthy weight for me?” and “How can I gain confidence in myself?”  I am now on a journey of developing self confidence and self worth, despite what the scale says.  It was quite a treat viewing the Miss America pageant while processing these questions…. It seems to me like the pageant operates under the assumption that they have a monopoly on “ideal womanhood,” which threatened to exacerbate my feelings of inadequacy and “overweightness.”

Leslie Knope

Leslie Knope

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What started in 1920 as an Atlantic City advertising campaign to keep tourists on their boardwalk after Labor Day has evolved into a competition to determine America’s “queen of femininity” (as the theme song went).  The Miss America pageant has changed over the years as standards of womanhood and femininity have shifted, but one thing that has stayed the same throughout the years is the swimsuit portion of the evening.  In this competition officially guised as a “scholarship pageant,” women are expected to strip down to two pieces of fabric to display their “fitness” as determined by their tiny waist, flat stomach, and firm legs.  The hosts of the program continued to rationalize the swimsuit competition by saying, “This is how the judges see if these women take care of their body.”  Really?  Does strength mean skinny?  Why not feature the contestants in a fitness routine?  I want to see them flip a tire, do twenty push-ups, then run a mile.  That would be really impressive.  The truth is that there is a billion dollar industry that runs on the objectification of women, even women in this “scholarship pageant.” This was painfully obvious in the swimsuit category as the camera zoomed in on every other contestant’s butt.

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Sure, Miss South Carolina may be “fit,” but her “fit” is definitely not my standard of health or beauty.

I commend these 52 women for making it to the national competition.  All are pursuing some sort of higher education, have defined goals for their future, and have identified a cause they are passionate about.  I admire their determination, ambition, and passion, but the question remains, why do these women have to strip down to inches of fabric to win an academic scholarship?

In my opinion, this “scholarship pageant” is begging for a makeover.  I want to extinguish the idea that women have to be “Miss America-Bikini-Ready” to be beautiful or confident.

One Miss America boldly refused to conform- Yolande Fox Betbeze.  As Miss America in 1951, she refused to “appear in a swimsuit in public unless she were going swimming.”  In response, the “spurned” bathing suit sponsor, Catalina, left the Miss America pageant and went on to create the Miss Universe competition.  Betbeze wanted to be recognized as a serious opera singer, not as a national sex symbol, and because of her nonconformity she is credited as the catalyst of change in the pageant’s shift away from an exclusive beauty pageant.

Yolande Betbeze Fox

Yolande Betbeze Fox

In 1968 a group of feminists took Ms. Betbeze act of protest even further by demonstrating at the Miss America pageant, waving signs that said “NO MORE BEAUTY STANDARDS- EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL!”

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After years of sporadically counting points, then calories, on-and-off exercising, crying over the scale, then literally, loudly cursing out the scale, I have come to a place where I want to feel confident, strong, and smart no matter what the scale says.  That’s where my truth lies now.

Melissa McCarthy wins the Emmy for her show "Mike and Molly."  A truly funny, beautiful woman.

Melissa McCarthy wins the Emmy for her show “Mike and Molly.” A truly funny, smart, strong, beautiful woman.

What a champion.

What a champion.

“College Students Tackle Gender Inequality”

This is a post I wrote for the Catapult blog and for the Impatient Optimists blog of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  I am inspired by the work of both these incredible organizations and was thoroughly honored to write this post.

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“For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about the empowerment of girls and women.  I am a junior at Millsaps College (a small school in Jackson, Mississippi), studying international relations.  When I entered college, I was overwhelmed like many other freshmen. But I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to make an impact, but didn’t know how to impassion my community.  I wanted them to see what I was seeing: that our world is in a girl crisis.  Girls all over the world are dying because they are seen as less valuable. I had to act immediately, and I needed to bring my 900 classmates along with me to make the most impact.

I became a Campus Ambassador for the Half the Sky movement and started to plan our campus premier of their recently released documentary.  Although I was raising awareness on campus, I wanted to do more.  I wanted to send girls to school, and Catapult made this possible.

More than 200 students showed up to our Half the Sky screening in early October. That incredible evening began a ripple effect that enveloped our campus. We formed a Catapult team to raise awareness and money for the education of girls in the developing world, and decided to fund the project “Scholarships for Girls” through the Afghan Institute of Learning. Students at my school learned about the oppression of girls around the world with Half the Sky, and were able to take action because of Catapult.

Together at Millsaps we were able to create a movement of informed, generous students.  On October 11, the UN’s International Day of the Girl, we set up rows of ribbon hanging from the ceiling of our cafeteria with dozens of facts attached about the oppression of women and girls. I was inspired by Catapult’s mission to make giving fun, so we made that our mission in fundraising as well.  While I blasted the Spice Girls, Beyonce, and Florence+ the Machine, I invited my peers to hear how they could make a difference for communities around the world – and then gave them free chocolate.  I had so much fun dancing around all day, sharing my passion and seeing student’s desire to make change.  Once students understood that we were determined to make a difference and to have fun, many more joined in. Faculty, staff, and students started joining our team on Catapult and then donating online.  Our awareness building and fundraising went hand in hand, and for such a small campus we were really successful.  We raised $1,200 for “Scholarships for Girls” in less than three months.

I know it can be really difficult to engage college kids…. We are bombarded every day with new responsibilities and new ideas.  And college can bring a new awareness of the world. Many of my peers had no idea that there were girls in the sex trade, no idea that girls were denied access to school because of their gender, no idea that such oppression even existed. All that awareness can lead to a type of brain-freeze, and that was the reason I was afraid to share my passion with my campus.  These are big, scary issues that have many, varied (and sometimes confusing) solutions.  Catapult makes solutions to these big problems more attainable by breaking them into small, fundable projects.

I am confident that the movement on our campus will continue to grow, and I’m so grateful to Catapult for making it all possible.  Catapult and I truly believe, as Sheryl WuDunn said, that “women are not the problem, they are the solution.”  So let’s fund them!  Let’s amplify their voices and help them in creating this brave, new, equal world.

Join a Catapult team or create your own today!”

Voices United

One story that has stuck with me over the past few days is that of the 23 year old woman gang raped and murdered in New Deli on December 16, 2012.  In response, thousands of women and men have been protesting their government’s historic lack of action when dealing with sexual assault.  This particular case (out of the thousands of others per year) has awoken a larger community, to the urgency of this issue.  I have been wondering wonder why this particular woman and this particular gang rape has spurred such action among so many.  In India, according to the National Crime Registry, a woman is raped every 20 minutes.

So, why is India responding in force to this particular rape?  Some are saying that Indians feel that this rape and murder is a “last straw” of sorts… that the “reason people took to the streets is that a growing middle class is uniting to make its voice heard.” 

I hope these protests can continue to shed light on India’s need for a change in the status of women.   There are so many organizations working to create a more equal and safe India for women, and I pray that the energy from these protests will be funneled into wider support for that grassroots work.

How do we deal with inequality?  How do we find solutions?  How do we escape it ourselves?  When looking at this madness that women face all over the world, what can we do?

In the coming weeks I will be gathering and posting women’s stories from all over the world.  Some of their biggest struggles, hopes, frustrations, and/or joys will be highlighted here.  It is my hope that through this insight we can gather some answers, find solidarity, and glean wisdom into how we can make a difference.