Category Archives: Women’s issues

Birth as Ritual/Ritual as Birth

Cultural anthropologist, Robbie Davis-Floyd, is a leading anthropologist in the fields of childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics.

 

A Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, she has studied childbirth practices firsthand in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere, and has promoted the work and legitimacy of midwives around the world.

Robbie Davis-Floyd (back row, right) honored by the North American Registry of Midwives (NARM) for helping create a nationally recognized certification process for professional midwives in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada

 

She has also lectured as a featured, keynote speaker at over 1,000 universities and health practitioners’ conferences in the US and internationally, always taking the opportunity to learn more about the maternity care systems of the countries she has visited.

Robbie Davis-Floyd speaking at the 2014 Symposium of the California Endowment

 

Davis-Floyd serves as a Board member of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization (IMBCO) and its new International Childbirth Initiative (ICI): 12 Steps to Safe and Respectful MotherBaby Family Maternity Care. She is also Senior Advisor to the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction, and Associate Editor of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Considering the cumulative impact of her energetic and creative efforts on many fronts to promote healthy childbirth without unnecessary, high-tech interventions, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Robbie Davis-Floyd has long served as the “public face of anthropology” to the international childbirth movement. Her work has been instrumental in bringing anthropological insights into the global childbirth arena and in effecting humanistic changes in childbirth practices in many countries.  Indeed, given the impact of her work, she is considered a “living legend” among birth activists both within and beyond anthropology.

Despite the enormous impact of her research, writing, and speaking on childbirth practices in the U.S. and elsewhere, birth is by no means the only topic that Davis-Floyd has studied. She’s recently given birth to a delightfully readable, new book, The Power of Ritual, co-authored with neuroanthropologist, Charles Laughlin.

Cultural anthropologist, Claire Farrer, has called the new volume “an exquisite and informative book,” writing:

I wish that this book had been available during my long teaching career–I would have used it in all my relevant courses!

Beyond professors and students, because of its breezy writing style, combined with its captivating examples from common experiences in Westerners’ lives, the book will surely appeal to many “ordinary” readers. Birth educator, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, has written:

Before I read The Power of Ritual, I thought I knew what ritual was, yet now I know that it is so much more–it can be everything from a simple conversation-opener to a powerful healing process, from an individual’s daily habits to full-scale ceremony. I have learned much from this book that I can apply to my own life to enable me to more consciously perform my daily, family, and professional rituals.

Robbie and I recently chatted about the book online. You can read our conversation below.

Meanwhile, you can learn more about Robbie Davis-Floyd’s work on her website here, including her C.V.  You can also find a view of Davis-Floyd’s many published books here, and downloadable PDFs of most of her dozens of published journal articles and book chapters here.

 

RDF: Robbie Davis-Floyd

AG: Alma Gottlieb

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AG: You’re well known for helping develop and promote the anthropologies of childbirth, midwifery, obstetrics, and reproduction. Your fans may be surprised at the focus of this book on ritual. Yet, your first book (developing from your dissertation), Birth as an American Rite of Passage, used ritual as an analytic frame.

 

In that sense, would you say that The Power of Ritual reprises the conversation about ritual that you began nearly 30 years ago?  Or, takes it in new directions?  Or both?

Put differently (and more broadly), why would an anthropologist of childbirth write a book about ritual?

 

RDF: I’ve come full circle, as I did not start out as a birth anthropologist! My original graduate training was in both Folklore and Anthropology, and my interest in ritual was sparked by one of my Folklore professors, Roger Abrahams, whose writings on ritual I found enticing.

I did my Master’s thesis on the folklore of a Texas madam, Edna Milton, who for many years ran the notorious Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas—featured, after its closing, in the movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The article I wrote about how Edna’s masterful use of jokes and other forms of language manipulation kept her in total control of the Chicken Ranch, its customers, and its employees was published in the Journal of American Folkore and was widely used for teaching for many years, as it clearly shows how jokes and folktales can be used for manipulation, plus it is hysterically funny!

In the middle of my PhD studies, I took some time off to spend a year traveling around Mexico and learning Spanish. I returned to Mexico often and worked with two shamans—Don Lucio, a traditional shaman and “weather-worker” (trabajador del tiempo) from a small village in central Mexico, and Edgardo Vasquez Gomez, a wealthy businessman living in Cuernavaca who had traveled the country in his younger years studying sorcery (brujeria), magic, and traditional healing, and later combined that with the teachings and philosophy of the Russian philosopher, G. I Gurdjieff. Both had large followings, and both could actually manipulate energy and perform what I experienced as magic. If you combined them into one person, you would get someone very like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan.

I know that Castaneda’s work has been discredited, but the two shamans I worked with were real—as were the effects of the (very different types of) rituals they performed. We used to joke that Edgardo was Don Juan. In my doctoral program, I later wrote several long papers on myth, ritual, and shamanism in Mexico and expected to do my dissertation research with those two. (That was before computers, and those papers, sadly, were lost in a house fire.)

But then I had a baby, got “bitten by the birth bug,” and decided, instead, to research women’s childbirth narratives, as I was still in folklore mode. Yet the more women I interviewed, the more one question grabbed me:

Given the highly individual nature of each woman’s birth experience for that woman, why is birth treated in such a standardized way in American hospitals?

I began to research the scientific literature on birth. I soon realized that the vast majority of “standard obstetric procedures” did nothing to make birth safer. Instead, they made it more predictable and controllable—while unnecessarily harming women and babies in the process.

Davis-Floyd has chronicled how fetal heart rate monitors keep women attached to a bed and claim attention on a machine’s readouts, rather than on a laboring woman’s subjective experience

 

At first, I was confused. Like most people, I had assumed that obstetrics was based on science. When I realized it wasn’t, I had to ask the most basic anthropological question: Why? Why would doctors do things to women that didn’t make birth safer? The explanation hit me like a bombshell.

’”Standard obstetric procedures” do not come from the logic of science but, rather, from the logic of ritual. Like most rituals, they reflect the core values of their culture—in this case, the culture of technocratic societies.

They are designed, as so many rituals are, to try to control the uncontrollable forces of nature, to keep fear at bay–in this case, fear of both death and lawsuits. So, I switched from simply analyzing women’s birth narratives to a focus on analyzing obstetric procedures as rituals.

To fully explore this notion, I needed to understand ritual more, and its primary characteristic– the use of powerful symbols to convey meaning. I took a summer seminar at the University of Virginia with Christopher Crocker on what was then called “symbolic anthropology” (now “interpretive anthropology”). I also taught myself medical anthropology, which I had never formally studied.  But I had to become an expert in it, as pregnancy and childbirth had long ago become defined as medical events.

After reading almost everything that Victor Turner, Clifford GeertzArnold van Gennep, and many others had written about ritual, I saw that birth, which used to be a physical and social rite of passage replete with social rituals, had become a completely medicalized rite of passage.  The rituals that characterize birth everywhere had become medical rituals, officially disguised as “standard procedures.”

Dissatisfied with the many definitions of ritual I read, I created my own:

a ritual is a patterned, repetitive, symbolic (and often transformative) enactment of a cultural (or individual) belief or value.

Obstetric rituals enact the core values of what I called “the technocracy”—a term that came to me from Peter Reynolds, via his book, Stealing Fire: The Atomic Bomb as Symbolic Body, but that I redefined:

a technocracy is a hierarchical, bureaucratic, capitalist, and (still) patriarchal society organized around the supervaluation [a word I coined] of the progressive development of high technologies and the global flow of information via those technologies.

I generated a list of what we might perceive as characteristics of rituals: symbolism, rhythmic repetition, order, formality, framing, performance, acting, stylization, staging, and often, intensification toward a climax. In my dissertation (which became my first book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage), in a chapter called “Birth Messages,” I dissected each standard obstetric procedure—its official rationale, the scientific evidence against it, women’s highly varied responses to it—and explained how it acted as a ritual by enacting, displaying, and transmitting specific core technocratic values and beliefs to women, their partners, and their practitioners.

In Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Davis-Floyd analyzes the wheelchair as a powerful symbolic statement conveying the clear message that the woman in labor is “disabled”

 

At first, some ritual scholars like Ron Grimes argued that I was metaphorizing obstetric procedures as rituals, but that they were not really rituals—they were like rituals—because most scholars saw ritual as religion-based. But since the publication of my book in 1992, and its second edition in 2003, my analysis of hospital birthing practices as rituals has held, and its framework for understanding the characteristics of “secular ritual“ (using childbirth as an example) has been widely used.

AG: What a fascinating intellectual history! So, for this book on ritual, how did you decide to collaborate with a co-author who specializes in neurological approaches to human experience?

RDF: From analyzing birth narratives, I saw that women’s perceptions of themselves and their ability to give birth were profoundly affected by technological hospital rituals (such as IVs, electronic fetal monitoring, Pitocin induction or augmentation, episiotomies, immediate cord clamping, etc.). So I knew there was a missing piece in my growing understanding of ritual. It seemed clear that ritual can affect the human brain–but how?

Davis-Floyd’s research has helped document the much higher likelihood of a C-section once a woman’s labor is “induced,” or accelerated, with Pitocin

 

I searched the literature but found no answers until, one day, while browsing the book stalls at the annual American Anthropological Association conference, I saw a book way at the back of the Oxford exhibit booth. That particular book was literally glowing at me—in much the same way that I could often see the reins of energy that Edgardo held in his hands glowing during group meetings. I pulled the book out, and my life changed! It was called The Spectrum of Ritual, and it gave me the answers I was looking for. Here, finally, was the missing piece—the neurophysiology of ritual, the explanations for how ritual works on the brain and, thus, where it gets its power over us humans—starting with its multiple roles among animals.

A few years later, I met one of its authors, Charles Laughlin, at a conference. We both had read everything the other had written, so our meeting was intense and our ensuing friendship equally so. We eventually decided to co-author a book on The Power of Ritual–because I wanted to expand my study of ritual into other arenas besides birth, while Charlie wanted to put his highly esoteric work on ritual (characterized by what he termed ”neurognosis”) in more straightforward language, so he could make it accessible to people with IQs lower than 180.  I kept telling him, “Just dumb it down and tell stories”!

AG: Did you run up against differences in approach?

RDF: Not really. Charlie accepted my definition of ritual as the one we would use.  We also used most of my list of the characteristics of ritual. At some point, though, we realized that some factors on my original list, such as the fact that rituals generally work to preserve the status quo yet, paradoxically, can also be used to generate rapid social or religious change, were actually effects of ritual, not characteristics.

In this book, I finally was able to write about my long-ago work with the two Mexican shamans.  Unfortunately, it was all from memory, since, as I previously mentioned, the graduate school papers I had written about those experiences had all burned up in a house fire.

 

AG: This book begins with a theoretical discussion of how to define and analyze ritual, but it ends with a surprisingly down-to-earth section offering models for how contemporary readers might create their own rituals for important moments in their lives, whether for menarche, meditation, lucid dreaming, prayer, birth (as Melissa Cheyney has shown, homebirthers in particular create lots of rituals for honoring, de-medicalizing, and helping them through the labor process–see her article, “Reinscribing the Birthing Body: Homebirth as Ritual Performance”), death, or other significant events or experiences.

When we think about “engaged anthropology,” we usually have more economic or political transformations in mind.  Would you consider the “how-to” section of the book another variety of “engaged anthropology”?

RDF: Yes! And also of “applied anthropology.” Anthropological understandings gained from studying people and their lifeworlds should be expressed in ways that enable people to apply them to their own lives and use them for their own purposes. We need to come down out of our ivory towers and make our work relevant and useful in immediate ways. That is why Charlie and I put so many personal examples of ritual into our book—to engage readers with those experiences and help them directly apply them, should they wish to do so.

 

AG:  So, what’s next?

RDF: Our refinement of both of our life’s works in this book is now feeding back into the third edition of Birth as an American Rite of Passage, which I am working on now, and which will be a complete revision and update (this time with a co-author, the amazing Missy Cheyney). Another full circle!

But I‘ve never confined myself completely to birth and related subjects. In addition to ritual and symbol, I’ve also intensively studied cults (as described in The Power of Ritual), medical doctors who became holistic healers (as described in From Doctor to Healer: The Transformative Journey), futures planning via global scenarios, and aerospace engineers. But those are stories for another time. That’s one of the great values of anthropology. Once you have the tools, you can study any phenomenon that captures your interest!

AG: Any other future projects in the works?

RDF: Betty-Anne Daviss and I are in the process of finishing Childbirth Models on the Human Rights Frontier: Speaking Truth to Power—a sort of follow-up to our book, Birth Models That Work (2009), which has been called “seminal” (though we would have preferred “ovarial”) because it was the first book to describe truly functional birth practice models that are woman-centered and evidence-based—as opposed to the dysfunctional, non-evidence-based maternity care models that predominate almost everywhere.

 

This new follow-up volume describes models that are way more “out on the edge”—in high-poverty, disaster, and war zones, for example. It also discusses birth models that are more iconoclastic, while addressing professional bullying and competition among doctors, and the de-skilling of obstetricians in techniques for vaginal breech birth.

Our next project will be an edited volume called The Global Witch Hunt: The Ongoing Persecution of Woman-Centered Birth Practitioners. Its purpose is to call attention to the often-intense persecution of some of the most skilled midwives and obstetricians in the world, who will often go out on a limb to honor the wishes for a normal birth of women considered high-risk, by attending them at home or in hospital, but then get punished for putting the woman, not the protocols, first. The “witch-hunted” practitioners will tell their own stories in each chapter, while we co-editors (Betty Anne-Daviss, Hermine Hayes Klein, and myself) will contextualize those stories in the Introduction and Conclusion.

In another vein, for years I have been writing short stories, which I hope to publish some day in a book called Robbie’s Reader: Vignettes of My Magical Life—for my life has indeed felt magical, primarily because my anthropological research and international talks have taken me all over the world, filled my life with adventure, and given me great stories to tell!



A Tale of Two (Ad) Campaigns

For a while, the mega-global corporation, Unilever — owner of Dove beauty products — spoke thoughtfully to the world’s women.

The 13-year-long “Real Beauty” campaign that began in the early ’90s aimed to “change the conversation” about gender by presenting women of many colors, sizes, and body shapes in its ads for soap products. Although the campaign had its critics, it seemed to garner far more admiration than assault. Sure, Unilever also produced horrible Slim Fast powders and skin-whitening creams that undermined the body-positive and multiracial values that the new Dove campaign claimed to promote.

But . . . those images.

Dove Beauty Campaign-Diverse Women in Underwear

Who wouldn’t smile at this anti-one-size-fits-all ad?

But last spring, the latest installment in the campaign that declared itself on the side of women launched a new ad that angered far more viewers. Showing women of diverse sizes and shapes was one thing. Showing bottles of diverse sizes and shapes was another.

Dove Ad-Diverse Bottle Sizes & Shapes

And the new campaign for body washes explicitly equated women with those bottles.  Ugh.

“Each bottle evokes the shapes, sizes, curves and edges that combine to make every woman their very own limited edition.”

Oh, we’ve been there before.  We’ve had decades of ads equating women with cars.

Pirelli Tire Ad

And bottles of beer.

Woman as Michelob Beer Bottle Ad

Feminist media critics such as Jean Kilbourne have been brilliantly critiquing those sorts of offensive ads objectifying women for decades.

Suddenly, Dove didn’t get it.

To make matters worse, the new ad in the UK from Dove — already pulled, soon after airing — managed to offend women intersectionally: not just on gender grounds, but also race.

Dove Ad-Black Woman Becomes White

 

Online, some sharp viewers (including one named, intriguingly, Kristina Chäadé Dove) schooled Unilever in the shameful history of soap companies promoting racist assumptions about cleanliness.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 10.41.26 AM

The Twitterverse has wondered how this outrageously racist ad could have gotten approved. One blogger has commented, “It leaves one wondering if there are any people of color that make decisions at Dove.”  

Well, let’s recall that the Dove’s parent company is Unilever, after all — headquartered in the Netherlands. The Dutch have a long history of denying the racism behind their colonial empire. So, perhaps, no.

Meanwhile, along comes General Mills. A new pair of ads follows in the footsteps of Dove’s earlier successes. Instead of urging women to diet, or binge-eat — or both — these ads actually encourage women to have a normal relationship to food. You know: Eat when you’re hungry. Enjoy what you’re eating.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.06.31 AM

Or, as one ad concludes: “Own it.” 

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 11.06.02 AM

The new stage directions in the theatre of global advertising: Enter General Mills, Exit Unilever.

But this simple math equation, which seems to evoke only a single solution, raises disturbing ethical questions. Does corporate society have space for more than one enlightened-feminist ad campaign at a time? Will any of these feminist-inspired campaigns affect more mainstream corporations to produce images challenging gender inequity — stereotype-busting images that our society still so desperately needs?

A Review of “Euphoria” by Lily King

The novel, Euphoria, by Lily King, published in 2014, became a national best-seller and won several major literary awards.  Based loosely on a brief period in the life of Margaret Mead as she hesitated between Reo Fortune (to whom she was married) and Gregory Bateson (who the couple met while conducting research in New Guinea), the book brought wide attention to the iconic figure of 20th century American anthropology.  How did the novel shape up as a piece of intellectual history?

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I should say from the outset that I enjoyed Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). I read it in a week.  At the literary level, it’s wonderfully written. I didn’t wince at awkward language or edit paragraphs in my head.  I understood why the book became a national bestseller and won several literary prizes.

Euphoria

Nevertheless, a few days after having finished it, I found myself increasingly critical and disappointed.

Spoiler alert: The rest of this review is all about the book’s ending.

Sorry about that. But for me, as an anthropologist, the ending is what really stuck with me as the book lingered in my mind.

So here’s the basic storyline.

Margaret Mead (“Nell Stone”) and fellow anthropologist, the New Zealand-born Reo Fortune (“Sedgwick Fenwick,” nicknamed “Fen”), meet on a ship and fall in love. Margaret Mead and another fellow anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (“Helen”), have an affair. Reo Fortune gives Margaret Mead a choice of him or Benedict, and she chooses Fortune. Mead and Fortune marry (in 1928) and travel to New Guinea to conduct fieldwork with two ethnic groups (in 1931-33). Their marriage is problematic. The more we get to know Reo Fortune, the more odious he seems. It’s easy to imagine why Mead is looking for an excuse to leave him. Enter yet another anthropologist, the British-born Gregory Bateson (“Andrew Bankson”).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933.

Bateson, Mead, and Fortune in Sydney, Australia (1933)

The rest of the book works out this steamy, jungle–based love triangle (sometimes morphing into a love quadrangle, with Ruth Benedict lingering like a shadow in the background, half a world away).  The local New Guineans serve as exotic and useful backdrops, with cameo appearances and disappearances of individuals but, unfortunately, no well-sketched characters rounded out the way Mead, Benedict, and Fortune are.

The plot is basically Boy Meets Girl (interspersed from time to time with Girl Meets Girl), Second Boy Meets Girl, Girl Agonizes over which Boy to Choose, Girl Gets Pregnant by Boy #1, and . . . Girl Dies in Childbirth?!

Anyone who’s familiar with the four protagonists knows how this story ended in real life. Reo Fortune lost, Ruth Benedict lost, Gregory Bateson won (he and Mead married in 1936), and Catherine Bateson was the result (born in 1939), attesting to this love tri/quadrangle’s outcome. At least, that’s how things turned out until Bateson left Mead in 1947, later to be replaced by fellow anthropologist Rhoda Métraux as Mead’s partner from 1955 until Mead’s death in 1978 of pancreatic cancer. Margaret Mead & Gregory Bateson

Mead and Bateson among the Iatmul in New Guinea (1961)

 

But not in Lily King’s book.

In this alternate reality, before Margaret Mead has a chance to decide to leave Reo Fortune, she miscarries while on a ship to New York, and she dies at sea from hemorrhaging. Gregory Bateson learns of the tragedy while preparing to sail to New York to try once again to convince Margaret Mead to leave Reo Fortune and spend the rest of her life with him.

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Well, Lily King is a fiction writer.  By definition, she’s allowed to make stuff up.  In fact, she could make everything up.  That’s her stock in trade.

But she’s decided to craft a novel populated by characters based on actual people whose actual lives are actually documented. She’s taken pains to conduct meticulous research on the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson while in New Guinea. Of course, the love scenes are imagined, but the basic contours of what they were doing, and where, hews closely in many ways to their known biographies. Up to the bizarre ending, King has painted an entirely plausible portrait of three people’s lives based on their documented experiences. But then she suddenly switches gears to imagine a substantially alternate reality for these real people who lived real lives in the public eye. If King had good reason for doing so, I could have remained a fan of the book. But she never clarifies, at least for me, why she suddenly fictionalized the basic facts into a drastically alternate scenario.

Had King’s fictional scenario come to pass, the history of anthropology in the 20th century would have looked different. If Margaret Mead’s life had been tragically cut short in the 1930s, as this fiction proposes, what might have been the result? After the years chronicled in the novel, the actual Margaret Mead became the only true public intellectual American anthropology has yet produced–with household name recognition, thanks to her monthly columns in the Ladies Home Journal. If Mead had died in the 1930s, the discipline might well have languished with far less funding, far less prestige, many fewer students taking courses, fewer departments in universities, and far fewer women entering anthropology (and maybe other social sciences as well). Mead not only publicized anthropology, she forged and publicized the possibility of a major female scholar gaining international attention.

Mead Speaking on UN Radio, 1958

Mead speaking on United Nations Radio about the Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development sponsored by the World Federation of Mental Health (1952)

Mead on Steps of US Capital Bldg, 197

Mead on the steps of the US Capital with the staff that created her signature look in her later years (Jan. 1, 1973)

Of course, we can’t ever know, for sure, what the discipline of anthropology might have become without Mead’s last forty years —that’s the nature of counterfactual stories. But it would have been intriguing for King to speculate on this “What-if” scenario that she postulates. Instead, the story stops short at Mead’s untimely death, with only a brief postscript of sorts, decades later–recounting a brief scene with Gregory Bateson in the American Museum of Natural History in New York (where the real Margaret Mead in fact worked as a curator of ethnology for most of her career, as sexism kept her from a tenure-track or tenured position in any university).

Absent any speculation about how different anthropology would have looked without the giant figure of Margaret Mead, who publicized our discipline as no one, before or since, has ever done, the book’s ending thudded hard for me, with a crashing weight. Lily King hasn’t gifted us with her vision of how her counterfactual narrative might have played out. Right at the moment when the book promises to get insanely interesting, the story aborts.

And why did Lily King even imagine an untimely death of Margaret Mead, preventing her character from having the impact both on the discipline, and on American society, that she went on to have? Again, with that abrupt ending, that question is never answered.

Okay, fiction writers are allowed to pose questions they don’t answer. But, why this question for this character?

This reader was left frustrated.

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Meanwhile, young women seeking professional role models could do far worse than to read the works of Margaret Mead, memoirs of her life (1901-78) by those who knew her, and Mead’s own early autobiography (Blackberry Winter) and her fascinating Letters from the Field. She was an amazing woman, ahead of her time on so many levels. King starts to show us how. I wish she’d finished the job.

 

Howard, Mead-A LifeBowman-Kruhm, Mead BioGrainger, Uncommon Lives-My Life w M Mead

Lutkehaus, Mead-The Making of an American Icon Mead Bio for Kids Med, Blackberry WinterMead, Letters from the Field
  Saunders, Mead-The World Was Her Family

An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 2: The Posters

 

Mass of Women, online photo by Noam GalliPhoto by Noam Galai

Women (and some men) with signs, as far as the eye could see.

In my first post about the Women’s March of January 21, 2017, I chronicled the social and emotional ties I saw created in this space of massive communitas, feminist style. Here, I offer a textual analysis of the posters I observed.

Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Above the sea of pink knit hats, thousands of posters claimed the sky. Their messages ranged from instructive to witty, from loving to outraged. Let’s browse through a small selection of some of the most creative and impassioned, and see what they can tell us about this extraordinary moment in America’s still-young democracy.

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Poster, Tell Us Why You Came, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

 

At the entrance to the event, a team of independent filmmakers documented the day’s events. They didn’t need to pester people to beg them for interviews. Instead, they staked out a prominent spot and simply held up an appealing sign: “Tell us why you came.”

Everyone had her story, and these filmmakers wanted to document as many as they could.

Mine was simple. I told them: “I came as a feminist dedicated to the radical proposition that women are human.”Poster-Feminism is the Radical Notion that Women are People (Photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post), cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post

Later, I was gratified to see a man bearing the same conviction. The strategy behind the motto works best when men are on board, too.

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Poster, Women Are Watching, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

I like the multiple layers of this poster.

The long lashes and bright blue eyes evoke women’s beauty—a classic subject of men’s gaze.

But the message below up-ends that practice and puts women in the active position of viewer rather than viewed.  That message challenges the gross misogyny of Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about women (the infamous “pussy-grabbing” remark being only one of many).

More broadly, this poster announces that women are paying attention to any gross misdeeds Trump may attempt. The women’s movement that re-birthed on January 21st, 2017 attests to this poster.

 

Poster, We Cant Unhear What Youve Said, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This poster adds another sense modality to the sentiment of the last one. Not only are women watching the antics on the House and Senate floors, they are also listening to the outrageous speeches. And they are not forgetting. Trump’s bank account can’t buy amnesia for the rest of the world.

This poster implicitly evokes the power of the Internet. Pre-Digital Age, politicians could conceal their misdeeds, their offensive statements, and even the bills they introduced into the legislature, far more easily. Now, digital cameras and cell phones-turned-tape-recorders document politicians’ back-door dealings; investigative reporters “follow the money”; and any citizen can hold police accountable with a simple snap of the shutter.

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Poster, Trump Quote, Pussy Grab

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Donald Trump’s infamous comment resonated everywhere that day in Washington. In case anyone had been living under a rock all fall and needed help decoding the pink knit caps with “cat ears,” this poster reminded everyone of the odious Say what?! statement that outraged even Republicans.

“Pussy” used to be an X-rated term used by men to refer insultingly to women’s genitals. With a president as an avowed, enthusiastic sexual harasser,  women have now re-appropriated the metaphor and turned it against would-be “pussy grabbers.”

Poster, Dont Grab on Me, croppedPoster, Keep Your Laws off My Pussy, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Poster, Real Men Grab Patriarchy by the Balls, Photo by MC

Photo by Mina Cooper

“Pussy”-as-vagina and “pussy”-as-cat have now combined such that women are re-claiming their gendered identity as a space of agency rather than victimhood.  Effectively using the strategy of the gay rights movement, which re-appropriated “gay” and “queer” as terms of pride and self-identification, feminists have re-appropriated “pussy.”  Not only was “pussy” a degrading term for women’s genitals; “Don’t be a pussy” previously meant, “Don’t be a coward,” with the vagina standing in synecdochally for cowardice. The thousands of cat-pun-themed posters and -knit hats in view everywhere in D.C. signaled a powerful message: these women would not be bullied into submission. Rather, women own their genitals and feel empowered to push back against the sexist agenda of the Trump regime.

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Poster, Trump Grabs Crotch of Statue of Liberty

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This poster distressed me more than all others I saw. I kept finding myself somehow compelled to look at it, then compelled to look away.

The idea of a sexually harassing president is odious enough. Taking that image as a metaphor for raping democracy, as symbolized by the feminized Statue of Liberty, is, if such a thing is possible, even more disturbing. Whether from direct experience or from hearing about it from friends and relatives, all women know what it is to be sexually assaulted. Imagining our collective polity and shared values assaulted in this symbolically resonant way is almost too painful to contemplate.

Yet Trump’s abhorrent statement from long ago, now immortalized, has spawned a new generation of feminists. The feminist artist who visualized this metaphor has created a powerful image that is bound to speak for months and years to come, for all who so much as glimpsed her horrifying poster.

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Poster, Embarrasser in Chief

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Donald Trump’s personal history as a proud sexual harasser may even include rape—several accusations have been neither fully proven nor discredited. As such, the individual representing our nation to the world is deeply problematic. How can such a person have been chosen as Time magazine’s “person of the year”? This poster mocks Time’s decision by applying a new, degrading title, along with an iconic image of evil–the horns of the devil in Christian iconography (inherited from the satyrs of Greek mythology)–to our commander-in-chief.

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Poster, Dr Seuss Rhyme, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

Why does everyone like Dr. Seuss? Because he distills complex concepts into simple rhymes that even young children get.

This brilliant poster takes advantage of that strategy. Donald Trump’s disturbing history of sexual aggression towards women is protested via a child’s rhyme—not to belittle the seriousness of our president’s outrageous misogynist history, but to insist in the clearest and simplest possible terms on the basic fact of its unacceptability.

And, in case anyone missed the Dr. Seuss connection, the poster mad that inspiration explicit with a signature red-and-white-striped hat.

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Poster, My Body, My Choice, Photographing Crowd

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This sign echoed hundreds of others referring to so many issues important to America’s women. Having a “pussy-grabbing” president terrifies young women, who keenly appreciate the battles their mothers and grandmothers fought to keep abortion legal and safe, breastfeed in public, name sexual harassment as a crime, and put rapists behind bars.  In other words, “My Body. My Choice” resonates across multiple registers.  It indexes the many struggles women have waged across multiple centuries and communities to assert somatic autonomy; the battles that have already been won to achieve this aim; and the precarity of those successes in the new U.S. administration.

This particular sign was silk-screened, along with hundreds of others, by members of an arts collective who donated their expertise and services at the Nasty Women Exhibition, a six-day art fair held in Queens, NY, the week before the Women’s Marches. All artwork at that exhibit sold out, and the entirety of the $42,000 raised was donated to Planned Parenthood. In this photo, my daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, doubled as sign-holder and photographer as she observed and marched.

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Poster, Never Again, Coat Hanger, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another devastating combination of 2 words + 1 image.

Roe v. Wade represents just one of many rights that people at the Women’s March aimed to defend. But it epitomizes the anger that women feel at the life-threatening medical risks they would incur if Roe V. Wade were reversed.

This poster speaks poignantly to my own family history.

My maternal grandmother had thirteen dangerous and illegal abortions.

Or so my mother once told me. Out of a combination of shock and embarrassment, I never asked my mother any details. And I certainly never queried my beloved grandmother about what must have been painful memories, as the topic was entirely taboo during the years when my grandmother was alive. But from what I know of my grandmother’s life, I find the claim entirely plausible.

As Jews living in extreme poverty in shtetls of Eastern Europe, both my maternal grandparents had only managed to attend grade school, through maybe the third or fourth grades, before they managed to flee religious persecution and make new lives for themselves in the U.S. Once here, they found religious freedom but continued to live in poverty: they rented the same three-floor-walk-up, one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for 50 years. They both worked long, hard hours for decades—my grandfather, as a waiter; my grandmother, as a licensed practical nurse.

My grandmother had two daughters, but the second (my aunt) was born with a serious kidney disease, and the doctor wasn’t optimistic about her chances for survival. My grandmother devoted herself to her sickly daughter’s health, and through her love combined with her basic nursing training, she managed to keep her daughter alive.

According to my mother, this medical and emotional trauma, combined with the family’s poverty, convinced my grandmother to put an end to her childbearing years after my aunt was born in 1923. But reliable birth control methods were still decades away. My grandmother’s only recourse to thirteen more pregnancies was to have thirteen back-alley abortions. Here’s where my pre-anthropological days fail me. I don’t know the details of who did the work, where, and how much they charged, although I imagine that coat hangers might well have been involved.

Until Jan. 21, 2017, this old family story, while a part of my maternal lineage, seemed worlds away from the lives of modern American women. As we await the drama unfolding in the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, images of coat hangers sometimes invade my dreams.

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Poster-Decriminalize Womanhood, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

A personal favorite. This poster says so much with two words and one powerful image.

So many women–in the U.S. and elsewhere—are sexually assaulted. So few rapists are ever even tried, let alone convicted and jailed. And in recent years, so much legislation has been proposed by Republican politicians at both state and federal levels in the U.S. that aims to curtail women’s hard-won freedoms.

Moreover, in middle schools, girls across the U.S. and elsewhere view textbook drawings that make the inside of their bodies seem like alien territory.

The net effect of these efforts is that, to some young women, it feels that the simple state of being a woman is being criminalized.

The artistic creator of this poster has used warm colors to draw the uterus as an object of beauty. Along with the über-short and über-clear text, she declares that a woman’s genitals should be the source of pride, not fear, much less invasion–whether physical, symbolic, or legal.

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Poster, My Pussy Bites Back, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

And this poster individualizes the determination to protect women’s bodies by evoking a veritable vagina dentata motif. Here, we see an empowering response to Trump’s threats to women’s reproductive rights and sexual autonomy.

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Poster, Grow a Vagina, Betty White Quote, photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post

For many years, “Grow a pair” or (more explicitly) “Grow some balls” has served to urge men and boys to gain courage. In that idiom, testicles function as a metaphor for all that is stereotypically associated with masculinity — physical strength, emotional steadiness, tenacity.

This women’s march not only challenged the economics of patriarchy. With posters such as this, the protest challenged our deepest assumptions about gender.

“Grow a vagina” as an exhortation to be brave urges girls and women to think of their genitals as organs of strength. Any woman who has ever menstruated gets it. So does any woman who has lost her virginity to a man. And what about childbirth? There’s a reason Asante women of Ghana liken childbirth to going to war. And don’t even get me started about rape. As every woman knows, women’s genitals are the site of almost super-human strength.

 

Poster, Fight Like a Girl, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

This poster expands the notion of female strength from the genitals. Here, women are depicted categorically as strong. The poster’s motto overturns two phrases commonly used to encourage boys to be strong: “Don’t cry like a girl” and “You fight like a girl.” Here, fighting like a girl is taken as a badge of honor, with girls depicted as a model to emulate, not avoid.

 

Poster, Resister, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

In this poster, the beloved fictional character of Princess Leia stands dramatically for women’s ability to defend themselves. The double-entendre, single-word text packs a powerful punch. With those eight letters, women are at once offered Princess Leia as a role model for resistance, and a vision of sisterhood both with that fictional character, and with one another.

Montagu, The Natural Superiority of Women

Years ago, the renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu argued that men are, intrinsically, the weaker sex. His book, The Natural Superiority of Women, first published in 1952, was an inspiration to the founders of the National Organization of Women in 1966.

The set of posters just analyzed suggests it might be time for Ashley Montagu’s book to become required reading in high school social studies classes across America.

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Poster, Womens Rights are Human Rights, Black, Worker, Immigrant, Trans, Poor, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

If the hundreds of posters I saw shared an overarching theme, it was probably, “Intersectionality.”

Unlike the “second wave” of (largely white) feminists of the 1960s, feminists of the 21st century understand that the fates of the world’s women are interlinked, and, moreover, that our struggles are also interlinked with those of other marginalized and oppressed populations. At the Women’s March in Washington, everywhere, I saw religious minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically vulnerable—both in person, and represented on signs.

Poster, Build Bridges Not Walls, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

I took the “bridges” on this sign both in the literal sense, concerning the US/Mexican border—and as a metaphorical sign urging political alliances to link the many marginalized and vulnerable groups now targeted by the Trump administration.

 

Poster, I Want as Many Rights as Guns Have, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos /Huffington Post

This poster makes ironic ties to another bitter controversy in the contemporary era: the rights of gun owners vs. the need for public safety.

Are women really less valued than guns in American law and American society?

 

Latina Girls with Posters

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

These young Latina girls probably ranged from 13-16 years old, but their posters testified that they already identified as women. And their posters signaled their early understanding that in 21st century America, this identity comes with political baggage, and demands solidarity and pluck.

The energy and positivity of this cheerful but powerful young group felt infectious.

 

Muslim Woman Holding Poster, LS Photo, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This young Muslim women displayed a dazzling understanding of intersectional issues. Islamophobia, reproductive rights, racism, misogyny, ignorance, hatred, climate change, the school-to-prison pipeline, the Black Lives Matter movement, and love all found a place on her packed poster. As such — and in contrast to her own headscarf-wearing body — her poster proclaimed a subliminal retort to the common American stereotyping of Muslims as “other.” Through her poster, this young woman asserted her common humanity with so many “others,” thereby deconstruction the “othering” impulse itself.

 

Poster, Republicans Will Protect Your Rights if You Are a Fetus, Photo by LS, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

If the protesters understood acutely the ways in which seemingly disparate issues intersect, the same cannot be said for Republicans who see these issues as unrelated. This poster in effect offered a meta-critique of those conceptual blinders. The ironic result it pointed out: the unborn have more rights than many groups of people outside the womb.

 

Button, Dissent is Patriotic, ACLU

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

The movement began with women, and attracted over a half a million of them in Washington, D.C. alone. But men joined in as allies, often pointing out the intersections with other issues.

The legal right to protest Trump’s policies was on people’s minds early on. The button I spotted on this man’s hat proved prescient.

With a president who has declared that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” the ACLU — staunch defender of free speech — should become a major player in the next four years.

Thankfully, in the weeks following the inauguration, the American Civil Liberties Union attracted unprecedented donations by ordinary Americans. According to a report published by CNN on Jan. 31, 2017:

“The American Civil Liberties Union said it received $24.1 million in online donations over the weekend.

In a normal year, the activist group makes about $4 million in online donations. In one weekend, it raised six times as much money.”

The ACLU will doubtless put these funds to important use.

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Poster, So Mad, Blood Coming out of Wherever, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another personal favorite.

Back in Aug. 2015, Fox news journalist Megyn Kelly moderated a debate among Republican primary contenders. Kelly was especially tough on Trump for his anti-women agenda. After the interview, Trump dismissed Kelly’s challenging questions by referring to her genitals: he implied her questions lacked legitimacy because they must have been produced by menstrual processes — “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her . . . wherever.” Reverting to an age-old patriarchal habit of delegitimizing women’s claims for equality by suggesting out-of-control hormonal processes signaled that Trump’s misogyny was unlimited.

This poster revisits that moment and turns it against Trump. The sign holder owns her anger, and even associates it with her menstrual cycle. As with the pink knit “pussy hats,” in so doing, she is, in effect, using the logic of the gay rights movement, once activists re-appropriated the previously insulting terms used against them–“gay” and “queer.” This sign-maker’s menstrual anger does not control her; rather, she controls it, and for a political purpose: to push back against the sexist agenda of Donald Trump and others of his ilk.

Note, too, the angry tampon in the upper-right corner. Animating that piece of menstrual technology gives life to an inanimate object that is an intimate part of many modern women’s monthly bodily regimes. As such, the angry tampon re-channels the anger of all women, everywhere, who were denigrated by Trump’s insulting dismissal of Megyn Kelly’s professional journalism.

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Poster, Legitimately President like a Ham Sandwich is Legitimately Kosher, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Not all posters were grim or angry. Even through their outrage, some protesters found ways to make us laugh. This clever Miller analogy offered a bitter chuckle for Jewish protestors.

 

Poster, An Actual Ikea Cabinet, LS Photo, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

Another punster targeted not Trump, but his Cabinet picks.

At the time of the Women’s March, Trump had already announced many outrageous choices for top Cabinet positions, including Betsy DeVos for Education, Rick Perry for Energy, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development. Just a day after the inauguration, reasonable people educated about these picks were already furious.

Nevertheless, this protester’s play on words earned a smile wherever she went.

 

Poster, Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Rights

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another poster offered a different play on words. The time for Cyndi Lauper’s celebration of girls protesting against sexism via partying is over. With the assault on women’s bodies on many registers, today’s girls just wanna have fun-damental rights.

Even in the most urgent of political crises, a joke can keep us sane. As H. L. Mencken once said, “What restrains us from killing is partly fear of punishment, partly moral scruple, and partly what may be described as a sense of humor.”

 

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Poster, I Cant Believe I Still Have to Protest this Shit, Cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

The last theme I want to signal is the set of inter-generational conversations that abounded on many posters.

Women who remember earlier women’s rights struggles displayed their frustration with old battles that they thought they had won, only to see them re-appear with new force and Hydra-like terror.

Poster, Hello 1955 Please Hold for the Republicans, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

In the U.S., Republicans often point to the 1950s as a Golden Age. Women, and minorities of all sorts, know better.

American schools were still segregated, and Jim Crow laws were still on the books and followed across the South. Gays were still either closeted or bullied. Women were still expected to marry, have children, and devote themselves exclusively to their families while abandoning all career aspirations. The “military-industrial complex” was just being born. The Cold War divided the world into “us” and “them” while starting to outsource military conflicts to the global South. No concept of rights for the disabled even existed. Public awareness of any religions beyond Christianity was nil. Industrial expansion produced unprecedented toxins polluting the water, air, and land, without nary a protest.

Today, our nation is far from utopian, yet the gains made over the past half-century in rights for women, for minorities of all sorts, and for the earth, are undeniable. The Trump administration’s efforts to turn back the clock and undo those significant gains reminds women old enough to remember the 1950s of a nightmare that, until now, seemed like it was just a distant memory.

 

Poster, We are the Granddaughters of the Witches You Could Not Burn, Photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

This poster reminds us of a far longer timeline. Evoking the Massachusetts’ Salem witch trials of 1692-83, the women carrying this set of posters performed a sort of moving political theatre.

Feminist scholars such as Isaac Reed have argued that the Salem witch trials must be understood as a component of gendered history — rooted in patriarchal institutions and mindsets of colonial America. These contemporary protesters argued that the Puritan patriarchal mindset is still with us. They also saw the accused witches as early feminist rebel-heroes — and themselves, as their heiresses.

 

Poster, Now Youve Pissed off Grandma, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

As a feminist grandmother, I can relate to this one.

If women in general are supposed to demonstrate infinite patience, that gendered stereotype applies tenfold to grandmothers. They’re the ones kids turn to when parents are mad. If even Grandma is pissed off to the point of making a crude hand gesture, something is seriously amiss.

This poster highlights issues of special concern to the elderly — having enough money to live on after retiring, and a good enough medical insurance policy to cover the increasing costs of staying healthy.

And, yes, the poster also reminds us: old women are also vulnerable to sexual assault.

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Poster, This is Not a Moment, It Is a Movement, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Finally, lurking at the back of all our minds that day was the unstated question: “Now what?”

Posters abounded proclaiming, in one way or another, that the sun would not set definitively on that day. The momentous event — with its global impact — will be hard to dismiss or forget.

Although the Washington protest was the largest and, because of its location, the most symbolically most potent, it inspired sister marches around the country, and across the globe. Crowd estimates by scholars tell us that something like 4.5 million people marched in 915 individual events around the world.

These extraordinary numbers suggest two striking facts: a great deal of passion, and a great deal of coordination. When passion and coordination are harnessed, a powerful cocktail is created.

Which brings me to the next poster.

 

Poster, Make Feminism Great Again, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

During the campaign season, Donald Trump’s campaign motto, “Make America great again,” resonated with many white voters who feared global flows. But others saw in that slogan an unrealistic effort to close our borders to the world, and a dangerous evocation of earlier nationalist moves that produced imperialist invasion/expansion in places ranging from Vietnam and the Philippines to Iraq and Afghanistan.

This poster bitterly mocks that motto. Here, “Feminism” substitutes for “America” — thereby, implicitly, challenging not only the nativist/xenophobic agenda of Trump, but his longstanding misogyny, as well. This especially subversive slogan is bound to irritate Trump (and his supporters) greatly.

 

Poster Display on Floor in Metro Station from Distance, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

What to do with all these posters at the end of the day?

Many marchers felt reluctant to ditch them in trash cans.

A spontaneous art exhibit formed at this metro station, as protesters donated their signs to thE subway floor-turned-impromptu art-gallery that expanded by the minute.

Only two days later, museums and libraries around the world, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. to the Royal Alberta Museum in Vancouver, announced that they would start collecting the posters.

 

Poster, Mobilize for Midterms, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

While museum curators soon presented exhibits protesting President Trump’s executive order against Muslim immigrants and refugees either by removing (or covering over) all artwork by immigrants, or by featuring such works, political activists forged their own plans.

Across the US, a new organization has formed: “Indivisible.” Already, 7,000 chapters have been created. Members are busy protesting the Trump agenda, while mindful of the numbers necessary in Congress for Democrats to reclaim the national agenda. The most effective way is to “Mobilize for Midterms”—that is, the “mid-term” elections that will take place in 2018, in the middle of the current presidential term.

This poster featured the pragmatic side to the march, complementing the poetic and the artistic approaches featured in the posters highlighted above.

All approaches were in full force in Washington, and equally welcome.

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A, H w Matching Tshirts, Cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

The joy of raising a feminist.

My daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, had accompanied my husband and me to smaller protests over the years, but this massive scene made an impression like no other.

To plan for our trip to Washington, she’d bought us matching t-shirts. No offense meant to men, but given the past few millennia ruled by patriarchy, redressing the balance seems in order.

 

Tshirt, Im with HerPoster, Im with Her

                                           Photo by Alma Gottlieb

When Hillary Clinton was still running for president, people from Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama declared their allegiance by announcing, “I’m with her.” The un-referenced pronoun easily stood for Hillary Clinton because she was the first woman ever to win the nomination of one of the two major political parties of the United States. T-shirts supporting Hillary didn’t even have to mention her name—the “her” in question was obviously Hillary.

At the march in Washington, these simple three words took on a powerful new meaning when added to multiple arrows pointing in every possible direction. Once Hillary lost, “I’m with her” referred not to one woman, but to Every Woman. The power of a gendered political movement was born with those arrows.

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The official Women’s March on Washington has called for a national Women’s Strike on March 8th. Let’s join them!

 

When Feminism Starts in Fifth Grade

Can ten-year-olds be feminists?
Absolutely.

This group of fifth graders just voted to forfeit their basketball season unless their co-ed team is allowed to compete, girls included.

Feminism is not a radical world view.  It’s simply the proposition that women and girls are human.  These ten-year-old boys and girls in New Jersey got it.

5th Grade Basketball Team in NJ Votes to Forfeit Season for Feminism

An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 1: Finding Communitas, Feminist Style

Mass of Demonstrators in Front of Capitol 1, cropped
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
The doors of our metro car opened and closed, opened and closed with increasingly alarming dysfunction.  On any other day, the many more dozens of people jammed into our subway car than (for safety reasons) should have occupied our tight, air-deprived space would have panicked–jostled, elbowed, and accused one another.  Instead, taking the occasion as an opportunity to befriend new neighbors, we asked from where and how far our companions had traveled, asked where they were staying, asked if the growing-short-of-breath needed water.  In other words, we bonded.
Anthropologists have a name for that feeling of spontaneous community that developed in an unlikely place: we call it, “communitas.”  Coined by the great Victor Turner (one of my long-ago mentors), the term originally referred to feelings of solidarity forged in African initiation rituals.  But anthropologists now apply the word to all sorts of places beyond rain forest groves.  Two days ago, an urban subway offered my first sighting of communitas in Washington, D.C.–but certainly not my last.  On Jan. 21, 2017, feminism and anthropology converged, as women around the country–and around the world–forged a sense of communitas that, unlike many temporary feelings of communitas, may well have lasting effects beyond the day’s euphoria.
Indeed, after it was over, yesterday’s march in the nation’s capital felt, if anything, infinitely grander and more important when we learned of the 600 or so sister marches around the world attracting some 2 million protestors, begun on Facebook and coordinated by the miracle of social media.
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I’m old enough to have intense teenage memories of participating in the huge marches on Washington of the 1960s, supporting civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War.  But my anthropologist friend, Linda Seligmann, and I were accompanied to yesterday’s march by three young women (aged 17 to 21 years old) who had never participated in such a momentous event.
A, H, Mina, Charlotte on Subway
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
I watched their wide-eyed wonder with delight as some 500,000+ strangers, mostly women, found a new pink-knit-capped sisterhood.
Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped more
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
My day’s companions had their own somatic challenges.  One became dizzy and nearly fainted in the overcrowded, under-oxygenated metro car we occupied for nearly two hours; another exercised all her willpower to control her bladder, when toilet facilities proved elusive during six hours of enforced standing.  And yet, they never complained, never begged for an exit strategy.  Instead, they felt that strong pull of communitas.
I, myself, felt the tug of an old back injury asserting itself as those six hours of standing activated muscular fatigue.  And yet, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
After three hours of listening to inspirational speeches, many in the crowd became restless. “Start the march!  Start the march!” some began chanting.  And, indeed, some began marching (or, truth to tell, shuffling, amidst the thousands of protesters barely able to move), while others remained at the rally, to listen to yet more speakers.  Yet even that splintering of attention didn’t fracture our sense of common purpose.  Among those who stayed behind and those who forged on, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
Some protest signs and speeches signaled disturbing acts of police abuse across our troubled land.  And yet, even when faced with police officers and security guards trying to direct our unruly numbers, communitas won out, as protesters and cops responded with noticeable civility to one another.
The people who flocked to the nation’s capital looked more diverse than those at any march in my memory.  Judging by what I saw and heard, the event attracted white, brown and black folks; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; straight people, gay people, drag queens, and everything-in-between; breastfeeding babies and grandmothers in wheelchairs; sighted walkers and white-caned walkers; people sporting designer clothes and others wearing hand-me-downs; groups of teachers and groups of students; executives and labor union members; English-speaking and Spanish-speaking youth.
Latina Girls with Posters
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
And yet, despite this extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Muslim Woman Holding Poster (LS Photo) cropped
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
Or perhaps I should say, because of that extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Poster-We Are All Immigrants (LS Photo)
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
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I don’t mean to paint an overly Pollyana-ish portrait of an admittedly extraordinary day.  The challenges to maintaining momentum and organizing such a diverse constituency into a viable political movement are far from trivial.
But in the right circumstances, communitas can also cast a long shadow that can even produce some staying power.  Maybe, just maybe, it may prove powerful enough to help the organizers of these diverse groups–both those with impressive experience, and those just cutting their eye teeth on their first demonstration–mobilize the global energy, incorporating both love and anger, that asserted itself yesterday on all seven continents.

The Story behind “A World of Babies”

Interested in learning some behind-the-scenes stories about how “A World of Babies” came into existence?

Check out a new interview with my co-editor, Judy DeLoache, and me in a newsletter published this month by the Jacobs Foundation, a private organization (based in Zurich, Switzerland) dedicated to improving the lives of the world’s youth.

jacobs-fdtn-newsletter-screenshot

Here’s a sneak preview:

Gottlieb: “For urban populations in Europe and the US it always sounds amazing to imagine what it would be like if we had a more collectively oriented child-rearing style. But the truth is it doesn’t easily fit most of our lifestyles. When both our children were young, my husband and I were living a thousand miles away from our family. Unlike Beng mothers, I didn’t have nieces, sisters, aunts, and cousins to help carry our children. It would be wonderful if we had a more communal approach to child-rearing, but in practical terms, it’s hard for those of us who arrange our lives in nuclear families. Implementing a different baby-carrying regimen really means implementing a different family structure and residential pattern, and creating a sense of community such that a much larger group of people than a mother sees itself as responsible for the well-being of each child.”

Check out the full interview here:

“There is not one right way to raise children, there are many ways”

An Open Letter to My Grandchildren

Dear Dean and Mona,
 
At four years old and ten months old, you are both too young to understand why the grown-ups around you keep talking about confusing words like “deeply flawed candidates” and “misguided pollsters.” But sooner than I’d like, the realities of yesterday’s vote will begin affecting you.
 
If you see more boys bullying girls on the playground, and they say, “Our president says it’s okay to grab any part of girls we want,” remember what Mommy and Daddy have taught you: It’s NOT okay to hurt other people on purpose. Even if you didn’t realize at first that you were hurting them, if they tell you to stop, you must stop. As Molly of “The Big Comfy Couch” used to sing, “No means no.” Even if our president says otherwise. It’s important for you to learn this now: presidents are just people, and they can be wrong.
 
If you see some kids bullying other kids on the playground because they say that our president says those kids shouldn’t even be in this country, you can set those bullies straight. Tell them that any kid in your school has a right to be in your school. Even if our president says otherwise. It’s important for you to learn this now: presidents are just people, and they can be wrong.
 
If you see some kids bullying the disabled kids in your classroom because they say that our president just did that to a kid in a wheelchair, tell them that they shouldn’t be copying the behavior of a mean person. Even if that mean person is our president.
 
If the bullies are bigger than you and threaten to hurt you if you keep defending your classmates, tell your teacher. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the teacher doesn’t set those bullies straight, tell the principal. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the principal doesn’t set those bullies straight, ask Mommy or Daddy to help you write a letter to the chair of the school board. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the chair of the school board doesn’t set those bullies straight, ask Mommy or Daddy to help you write an open letter to your local newspaper. Maybe your neighbors or your local congressperson will set those bullies straight.
 
If no one sets those bullies straight, keep studying hard at school. Study your hearts out, go to the best college you can find, and maybe one of you will become a better president than the guy we’ve just sic’ed on the world.
 
If we haven’t yet had a woman as a president by the time you’re figuring out your life path, Mona, don’t let that discourage you. We came really close this year, and someone’s time will come soon. Maybe it’ll be yours.
 
I love you.
 
Grandma

An Open Letter to My Children

Dear Nathaniel and Hannah,

I am sorry that my generation has failed you.

We have bequeathed you a world that has too many problems, too much fear, and too much hate.

Dad and I tried to raise you to see the good in people, to understand others’ perspectives, to argue for fairness in the face of injustice, to respect the earth, to treat others with respect no matter the god(s) they worship or the size of their bank account or the shape of their bodies or the origin of their passport, and to feel hopeful about the future. Our nation has just elected a man who embodies the opposite of all these principles. He will set the tone from above–but in the end, he’s just one person.

As Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”

Our nation is, like all others, a work in progress. Right now, it feels like we haven’t made any progress at all. With Trump’s election, we’ve set back the clock on women’s rights, minorities’ rights, environmental protection, civility, predictability, respect for science, and the acknowledgment that (like it or not) we all inhabit a globalized world.

But it’s not the end of the story. There’s always a next chapter to be written, and your generation will write a very different chapter.

Your generation understands the urgency of combating climate change. Your generation embraces difference of all sorts–sexual, religious, racial, you name it–because your online engagements show you every hour how diverse, and how interconnected, the world is. Your generation absorbs knowledge because you know how easy it is to find your way to facts, and, with a little research, to separate facts from fiction.

Dad and I so wished that today could have been a day to celebrate. Instead, it’s a day to reflect on the work to be done. It’s a day to dig deep and strategize about how to create the world we want to inhabit. With a president who revels in abusing his power, mocking his opponents, and ridiculing the disabled, the disenfranchised, and the poor, the rest of us will have to work harder than ever to protect the vulnerable and oppose the bullies.

If Dad and I raised you to be optimistic, we also raised you to be resilient in the face of setbacks. I apologize that those skills in resilience will be called for more than ever in the next four years. But we are confident that you have what it takes.

I love you.

Mom

Thinking about Our Shared Common Ancestry–Pausing to Reflect Back on My Career as an Africanist

Honored to have an interview I recently did with Dallas Tatman (an MA student in African Studies at the U of Illinois) unexpectedly show up, to my surprise, on the NPR’s StoryCorps website.

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