Monday, March 28, 2005


Children as Unlikely Events

I just purchased airplane tickets for two adults and two 2-year-olds. The cost is the same -- once children turn two, they require full-price tickets on many airlines. Perhaps at two they begin to ding the airline hostess button too often, or eat more peanuts, or carry on their two allowed suitcases plus carry-on plus purse. This makes for very expensive travel.

And when it comes to boarding, children are on their own. Airlines have eliminated early boarding for passengers with small children. They did this, they said, in response to customer feedback. Did all those parents and full-fare-paying children call the airlines, irate, and say: "Stop boarding us first!" So those who bring carseats have to board with child, carseat, their carryon & purse, child's carryon & purse, and install the carseat and child, along with the throngs of customers. Of course who boards first is a function of money and the market. (Children may be boarded first informally, through the discrete kindness of airline staff.)

Flexible spending plans are one treat the government throws to the middle and upper classes. What parents can do is transfer part of their tax burden to low-wage childcare workers -- parents declare childcare expense, but also report the tax information (social security number) of the providers. However this is no free ride.

As with medical plans, one has to estimate how much one will spend. That amount is taken out of a paycheck. So that one must first pay twice -- when it is taken out of the paycheck and then to the provider -- before getting reimbursed. For that risk, the reward is that a reduced paycheck (pre-tax) reduce one's taxes: so the middle class can reduce their taxable income by up to $5000 a year per earner. Why can't one just declare how much one spent on daycare on the tax form itself, and not have it reduced beforehand, twice? If you overestimate how much you will spend, at least until now, you have forfeited the amount of overage in return for reducing your taxable income. It is a middle-class gamble. (Unlike healthcare, it is difficult to overestimate how much one will spend in childcare, however.)

There are public playgrounds for beautiful days. But what about the many cold and rainy or scorchingly hot days? If the public is entitled to outdoor playgrounds, why not indoor ones? Most local recreation centers have activities for older children and adults (particularly men), not for young children. One is left going to the Gymboree, the commercial establishements where children can roll around in plastic balls and get stoked up on sugary drinks and fatty carbohydrates for a $20 afternoon.

This is privatized childrearing. Children are seen as a personal choice, an unikely event that need not be structured into commercial or state institutions. At a local foodstore, there is a sign warning parents not to leave their children alone in a car for even a second! Yet most of their shopping carts cannot hold a child and they have none that hold two! Parents end up negotiating brief legal transgressings as they dash back and forth, negotiating caring for children with legal requirements and the specific infrastructure of shopping carts, entrances, bathrooms, cars, etc. Provincetown shops put water and jars of biscuits out for doggies but can't accomodate a single stroller. The only break for parents of small children comes unintentionally from the Americans with Disabilities Act and institution's palpable fear of litigation. Because the U.S. government says that institutions must allow disabled people access to labor and consumer markets, there are ramps, wide doors, and automatic door openers that help parents. Parking, however? Forget about it. So you have to risk your child's life navigating a chaotic parking lot of frenetic drivers and stray shopping carts. You aren't the legal risk. Once a legal category of persons is created, it becomes real and entitled to provisions.

Given the lack of sustainable communities, where so many people cannot afford to live where they grew up (I grew up in Chelsea, NYC -- forgetaboutit), most of us live at some distance from our families of origin and the worlds of our youth. The age-old system of collective participation in childrearing has been eroded by the conditions of industrialized and post-industrial life. The state may underwrite health care and education but the day-to-day care? No. This loss is replaced either by parents' labor (often mothers') or by paid assistance. Depending on the labor markets where you live, this paid assistance may be women of color and may be immigrants (documented or not). I haven't lived in those labor markets, which means I have employed white women. The employers of women of color are criticized for participating in racist and sexist global structures. Yet most of us are implicated in these systems -we rely on the carcinogenic labor of those who work in dry cleaners, the underpaid work of food preparation, and other hard labor that supplements the gendered labor of social reproduction.

Radical Queers mourn their comrades' turn to reproduction, seeing it as an abandonment of what is truly radical and political, because it is not sexual and it seems to embed participants in the American lifestyle. They forget the old feminist lessons about the political economy of raising children, which is one of the key frontiers of capitalist privatization vs. democratic socialism. The parents of children absorb most of the cost of young children, aided by whatever resources their immediate world is able or willing to share with them. (Which is often considerable.) And they engage local and international labor markets, as do we all. But despite the fact that we all were children, and that we rely on people having more children, our world is not designed to accomodate the basic elements of rearing children.

Friday, March 18, 2005


Gender has been the provenance of feminist theorists and social technicians. While its meaning is widely agreed on, its usage varies in ways that alter the political and even definitional meaning.

At a medical office, a poster encouraging mammograms asks what the risk factors for breast cancer are. One of the risks listed is female gender. But gender doesn't put you at risk for cancer, sex does. Gender has come to be the new Mrs., a polite way to address women without calling attention to petticoats.

In academic and queer circles, gender has come to mean transgender. If there's a conference about gender, you can't tell which conception of gender it means.

Ricki Ann Wilchens organization GenderPac is a fine liberal organization aiming to make life better for children and other people. Its scope reflects the transformation of gender from a systemic analysis of male dominance to oppression in relation to gender categories. The organization aims:

To ensure every American can participate in the workplace, the classroom, and the community regardless of whether they meet ideals for masculinity or femininity.
to end discrimination and violence caused by gender stereotypes by changing public attitudes, educating elected officials and expanding legal rights.
An enlightened mission perfectly in line with much early feminist efforts (Free to Be, You and Me) that does important educational work. It has a slick website and impressive top-shelf academic speakers (Sedgewick, Fausto-Sterling). It's doubtful that they would speak at a Free-To-Be, You-and-Me-type feminist conference today.

My concern is GenderPac's use of gender terminology. There is not an exact fit between GenderPac's "gender" and feminism's "gender." A statement of GenderPac's values says,

Generalizations, such as, "You straight white males just don't get it" are something we all use and we're usually wrong, because none of us is merely the sum of our group.
Well, feminist analysis is predicated on generalizations, although we hope ones more sophisticated than "you just don't get it."

More troubling:

Gender oppression is not only about "transgressing" gender norms. It's also about a 4-year old jock-in-training who finds herself forced into pigtails and skirts; a quiet, artistic boy who is beat up in the boy's locker room; or a lesbian femme sexually assaulted and then blamed for wearing a short skirt and tight sweater.
The lesbian femme sexually assaulted does give one pause. By whom? By a lesbian butch? Who blames it on the angora? What on earth does this example represent?

But even more than such overly inclusive examples is the use of "gender oppression." For feminists, who coined the terminology, it is about more than transgression, tomboys in pigtails, and sissy art boys. The very term represents the hard struggle of feminists to show that women were disadvantaged as a gender. There has been an intersectional critique of "gender essentialism" that generalizes about men and women as a class. That critique does not explain the different usage by GenderPac, although the group does ask for individual "sensitivity about difference and diversity." Their different use of gender oppression represents a shift in the assumed political meaning of gender.

GenderPac speaks of "gender-violence" and "gender oppression." This use of gender represents an enormous change from the feminist analysis of the gender systems or patriarchy. It can be seen as an appropriation of the intellectual and activist labor of femnists, who have had some success in gaining recognition of this area of gender inequality. In this feminist meaning, "gender-based" means that something bad is directed at women because they are women, in a system of male-dominance. Here is the UN definition of gender-based violence, for example:

The term 'violence against women means any act of gender- based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women..."

Whatever the limits of the UN, the term gender-based violence is used worldwide by feminist advocates and activists. It represents a systemic analysis predicated on the understanding that women, as a social group, are less enfranchised and are politically subordinate to men, as a group, and that (male) violence against women is a diffuse informal practice that has systemic consequences in recreating this arrangement. It is based on generalizations about gender.

GenderPac recognizes that "Gender rights are for those of us who transcend narrow gender stereotypes, but they're also human rights, and they're for all of us."

This is not meant to pick on one group but to note a symptomatic example of a rupture between feminist gender analysis and trans gender analysis. The rupture is often blamed on feminists (for not radically altering their conception of gender) but more often is barely addressed at all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


“marriage is a thing, through history, between a man and a woman for the propagation of the species, and I personally object to the shifting definition of terms within our culture.” Larry Woodward, member of PTA in Cupertino. (From “Jesus in the Classroom,” Peter J. Boyer, The New Yorker 3/21/2005: 63)

Hint: Propagation of the species might already indicate the shifting definition of terms within our culture.

Monday, March 14, 2005


This is how they get us. Who can keep up? In any given week, we have stories of corporate corruption (in the current climate, this translates into a sexual scandal, e.g., Boeing); religious and reactionary political appointments (Wolfs in poverty-reduction clothing; torturers as legal czars - hey, it is the Attorney General, afterall); roll-backs in rights, protections, and regulations (bankruptcy laws); give-aways to corporations (bankruptcy laws); and advances in the culture wars.

I need a specialization. Shall it be corporate malfeasance? Or the subcategory of erotic -malfeasance as stand-in for corporate corruption? Newspeak about entitlements?

From seeing the daily triumverate of news on AOL recently, I can better comprehend the state of the public sphere. There's one haiku on entertainment, one on health/life, and one of "news." These are accompanied by phrases that give a sense of participation through the hyperlink-blue choice, an opinion, a "vote." Participation in the three is equivalent, horizontal. ("What made audience fave drop out of Idol?") The brevity of these truncations betrays pain-staking labor and accumulated experience, a full-time position.
Left, photo of Condoleeza Rice.
Is it too soon to rule out 2008?
Rice rules out White House bid.
Vote: Tell us who should run.