Our contributors care about politics – about its impact on people, and about how to affect it. And that caring is not limited by national borders. This openness to the world underlies two of this issue’s pieces: one a reflection on the end of Fidel Castro’s long leadership of Cuba (by Sylvia Ramos Cruz), and another the story of one of the thousands of refugees fleeing war-ravaged Syria, told from the point of view of a Greek woman whose family were themselves once refugees (by Sophia Kouidou-Giles).
To most of Persimmon Tree’s readers and contributors, feminism is the crucially important political movement of our time. Two of the pieces – those by Anne Mollegen Smith and Pat Reuss – are vital ruminations on the impact that feminists can and should have on politics and politicians. Both make it clear that, though electing the first woman President will be a great thing, it is far from the only thing needed to secure a society based on equality and on respect for diversity.
We trust you will enjoy these political Short Takes that aren’t really about Clinton and Trump and November’s election – or are they?
Backlash, Phallic Drift, Gold Medals – and the Importance of Counting Our Beans
Already? I thought as I read that Senator Barbara Boxer will retire in January at the end of her current term, her fourth. It seems like yesterday that Boxer took office in the exciting Year of the Woman – when “President Clinton” meant Bill. The number of women senators tripled in 1993 – all the way up to six! – as newcomers Boxer and three other Democrats – Patty Murray, Dianne Feinstein, and Carol Moseley-Braun – joined fellow Democrat Barbara Mikulski and the lone Republican, Nancy Kassebaum, already serving.
With such a dramatic surge of women, a ladies room was at last going to be added near the Senate floor. The feisty feminist political broadsheet I worked on that year, The Getting It Gazette [see Editor’s Page], proclaimed, “For every six Senate seats, we’ll want another ladies room!”
Will Hillary Clinton have long enough coattails to sweep other Democrats into office with her, particularly women? Certainly the money she has raised for down-ticket races should be helpful. What about Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents, like New Hampshire‘s Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, who is going up against incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte? Or environmentalist Katie McGinty, running against Republican Senator Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, hoping to be the state’s first woman elected to the U.S. Senate? In Illinois, Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth is contesting incumbent Mark Kirk’s Senate seat, and in Arizona, Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick is challenging Senator John McCain. Can they win?
It’s more fun to have a horse in the race, so fill out your scorecard and place your bets: Give a little cash to some candidates.
Here are some things to think about. In the current Senate, 20 women are serving: 14 Democrats and six Republicans. Whether that is enough progress since 1992 is like the existential question about the half-empty, half-full glass of water. How would you make the call? Myself, I think we should be pleased but not satisfied, and we should begin to brace ourselves. Satisfying spurts of progress are often followed by the whacks of backlash.
Backlash: The Lessons of Title IX and Voting Rights
At the Olympics in Rio, American women won 27 of the 46 gold medals that went to U.S. athletes. On the way to winning four of those golds, swimmer Katie Ledecky smashed two world records, and Simone Manuel became the first black American woman swimmer to win a gold. We looked at the Final Five women gymnasts and we cheered for their all-American diversity – Puerto Rican, African American, Jewish, Texan – and our eyes grew moist seeing the supportive team spirit among them. We felt secure that Title IX was proving itself.
Still, women shouldn’t relax. My mother, Ione Rush Mollegen, used to say that pointed toe shoes came into fashion just often enough to ruin the feet of every generation of women. And she wasn’t just talking about footwear.
Writing in The Getting It Gazette, Pulitzer Prize-winner and best-selling author Susan Faludi explained how the winds of change can create backlash, a repressive social climate that affects employment, law enforcement, legislation, even the courts. When a conservative Republican government came in after a liberalizing Democratic one, she pointed out, “You sustained multiple body blows to your right to privacy, as the Reagan administration tried to impose ‘squeal’ rules on you for seeking birth control information.” Such things still happen: The Hobby Lobby decision, giving some employers a say in women’s contraceptive choices, was handed down just two years ago. Backlash in action.
Remember how just three years ago the Scalia-led Supreme Court decision gutted the sacred 1965 Voting Rights Act by declaring it “a racial entitlement”? Well, the Title IX section of the 1972 Education Amendments that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all federally funded education programs including sports is even more fragile. Title IX critics have repeatedly claimed, as then-Illinois Representative Dennis Hastert once did, that it fostered reverse discrimination, against men. Because the proportionality rule mandated balance between men’s and women’s sports, less popular sports like men’s wrestling – which Hastert championed – were facing budget cuts so that women’s sports could be expanded.
The Chicago Tribune called Hastert’s 1995 effort “the most ambitious attack to date on Title IX” and Hastert even invoked the scare term “gender quota” to discredit it. That attack was beaten back, as have been challenges as recent as 2011 when the University of Delaware was sued for reverse discrimination because men’s track and field teams were cut back. Backlash in action.
Phallic Drift and Its Consequences
In the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney famously referred to having “binders full of women” to consider for his cabinet. The fact that his political network was primarily male made this necessary. Healthcare journalist and social commentator Ronni Sandroff first identified and named this kind of problem for the Getting It Gazette in 1992, as that year’s President-elect Clinton was choosing his cabinet. When the pressure drops, Sandroff noted, there’s an insidious tendency to revert to male-defined values, to confuse the male point of view with the “real” reality, and to hear only what the guys say even when some pretty smart women are in the room telling a different story. Phallic Drift, she named it.
“One must constantly be on guard against Phallic Drift,” Mollie Ann Smith reminded in a later Gazette. “Like a default setting on one’s computer, the PD mindset will persist in spite of an infinite number of one-time corrections. If it isn’t changed on the, uh, master-command level (note how language perpetuates it), one must reset as part of every operation.”
So here we are, in another historic year, the Year of the Woman at the Top of our ballots. But even Hillary cannot be vigilant over the whole administration. So women have to do it ourselves, for ourselves, and not back down when the guys scold us, as President Bill Clinton once did, for being bean counters. No matter what they may intend, the guys are never going to find it easy to deal us into the game. To belittle the appeal of women candidates to the powerful female electorate, they’ll accuse us of voting with our vaginas.
We must keep up the pressure and, meanwhile, prepare women to dare to run for higher office. And higher. Let’s put that on our power vagendas. Senator Barbara Boxer’s California district has two experienced, motivated women candidates vying to replace her, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and California Attorney General Kamala Harris. That’s as it should be.
Keep on counting, without apology. For every six Senate seats won by women, we want another ladies’ room – and our fair share of seats at the power-conference tables. When we settle for less, we have only ourselves to blame.
What Verb Are You?
Politics, like verbs, can be either passive or active. Making the transition from the first to the second may be simple in writing and speaking, but it takes a major effort in our political lives.
As a political science and history major and then a middle school teacher, I taught students about government and how it works. I helped my mom in the garage that was a polling place and I sat checking names as a poll watcher. Lots of talk, lots of sitting and watching.
I passively watched the women’s movement gain steam. I didn’t read Betty Friedan or join NOW when they formed in 1966. I was curious, but that was all. Then I woke up one morning in 1972, a homemaker with three baby sons, and realized I needed to get busy. If women like me didn’t get involved we would never have a better and more equal world for our sons and daughters. So I hit the pavement.
We made quilts and afghans and raffled them off (the square I made for the quilt was Mother Jones’ “no matter the fight don’t be ladylike.”) My spouse and I cooked great Mexican food and made fresh margaritas – an unknown delight where we lived in Montana – and charged money to eat with us. The secretary at the Methodist church typed and printed the mimeo and we passed out the recipes. At the bottom of the page, we added great feminist sayings. Because there were no PACS or rules, we just handed the cash over to our women candidates and several of them won their local races.
My transition from passive to active was emerging.
I moved to Washington D.C. in 1979, now a single mom, and started work as a lobbyist for the women’s movement. Big and small, I had a leadership role in passing Women’s History Week, preserving Title IX, passing COBRA and the Violence Against Women Act while defending reproductive justice and welfare as if women and children mattered. These were all accomplished because a whole coterie of advocates had abandoned their passive and turned on their active voices.
I am retired now, but still work with the NOW PAC and the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. I am amazed at the tools now available for political and legislative action. Printers, scanners, computers and smart phones; Wi-Fi, Facebook and Twitter and selfies and more stuff than I care to learn about. And yet, much of this sharing of information and strategy, learning about polls and watching speeches and debates and spreading all of this within our circles of like-mindeds is done SITTING DOWN OR LOOKING DOWN. Back to passive?
So I remind myself and all of my followers that we have to get up and hit the streets once more – indeed, over and over until we win. It’s arduous and time consuming, but we have to look strangers in the eye and go to rallies and town halls and shopping centers and have house parties and knock on doors and make phone calls, and between campaigns, call our elected officials and remind them that women elected them. And not forget the margaritas.
His Name Is Abdul: A Greek Perspective
A young refugee raises his head from his afternoon slumber; his face is thin, his eyes dark. His clothes are stuck to his body wet with the sweat of nightmares, nightmares born of days walking on Greek shorelines, and nights rocking on the unsteady boats that travel on the currents of the Mediterranean Sea. He is part of humanity that is unwelcomed, dejected, and drowning, yet he has the hopes of any young man.
He is one of the lucky ones, fleeing the chaos of his embattled Syria. He is a refugee: a harsh word, filled with humiliation. Does it mean he is nothing? At the mercy of locals? Homeless? He does have a name: Abdul.
The news occasionally shows pictures of flimsy boats floating on the Mediterranean, crowded with Syrians and Afghanis, escaping to Europe through Greece and Italy. Families arrive in precarious transports, like the gray lifeboat that dumped him, wet and cold, on a Greek island wearing an orange life jacket.
It’s a daily event for an astonishing number of dislocated people barely tended to by governments and politicians. The Greek government is pleading for resources from the European Union. Is the young Syrian merely a bargaining chip?
My Greek homeland is a country largely populated by people of the diaspora, like my own father—who came to Greece escaping the Turkish genocide of Greeks nearly a century ago—and yet, my country does not welcome Abdul. Greek families share their food, clothing, soap, and yards, and offer words of encouragement to the new arrivals. These Greeks remember how it was for their parents and themselves during WWII – the years of depravation and danger. My father’s family survived because he found shelter in a tent at the beach to house him and his parents. Perhaps the young man will meet some of them on his journey.
Abdul had dreams. He still does. He grew up in the narrow streets of his village, going to school during the day and kicking a soccer ball with his friends in the evening. But his house is no more and his parents are lost. He dreamed of becoming a pharmacist like his father, studying in Damascus, the city of Jasmin, a place now ravaged by civil war where families live by day and count their dead by night.
And yet Abdul gets up, raises his eyes to the sky and moves on, looking for the hand that extends, giving him a chance to continue his journey, to find a home.
What Will Happen to Cuba Without Fidel?
April 2016, sitting on the tarmac in Miami on my way home to Albuquerque, I mused on my visit to Cuba, Puerto Rico’s sister island. I’d just re-read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “1000 Fearful Words for Fidel Castro,” written two years after the ousting of dictator Fulgencio Batista ended with the official revolución Cubana. I thought, what will happen without Fidel?
As a child growing up in a political family of Puerto Rican Democrats (Partido Popular), Republicans (Partido Estadista) and Independentistas (Pro-Independence Party), I had both feared and idealized the Cuban revolution (Communism! versus ¡Libertad!). As an adult, an American citizen born in a commonwealth often considered a colony, I occasionally envied los Cubanos their national autonomy.
El Comandante turns 90 this August and his brother, Raúl, runs the revolution now. Yet, he still marches with the ghost of Che Guevara Hasta la Victoria Siempre (always toward victory), glaring at Yankee imperialistas across the bay. He never, as Ferlinghetti feared, got his wagon fixed or his clock cleaned. He lived through treachery, invasions, loss of Soviet compañeros, and the 55 year-old embargo – el bloqueo that turned la revolución that could have been into the revolution that is.
Yes, Fidel put Cuba on the map of sovereign republics. He began this transformation by sparking a coalition of teachers, workers, and students (including third graders, Griselda and Elian) who spread out through the countryside and slew illiteracy in one year. He promised and delivered food, shelter, health care; and, for over 57 years, inspired a nation to make do with what there is, even to keep 60 year-old Detroit cars running on the fumes of ingenuity. All this while el pueblo struggled with wages of 26 dollars a month, a dearth of staples such as steel, cement, art supplies, and toilet paper, as well as life under the constant eye of Committees to Defend the Revolution.
Yes, Raúl is Presidente. Still, what will happen without Fidel to remind 54 year-old Obama that his Cubanos will not trade hard won glory, human rights, or self-esteem for material goods and a new colonialismo? “Cuba doesn’t need gifts from the empire” was his response, in the official newspaper, Granma, to the U.S. President’s visit to La Habana earlier in the month.
Perhaps he was grappling with the reality of Carnival cruise ships disgorging hundreds of turistas bearing dollars, thousands of Cuban refugees rushing north to cross the Bridge of the Americas into El Paso before their special status vanishes along with the embargo, and TV chyrons highlighting the countdown to a new political reality for his nation, one of the last five living communist dreams.
need not have fretted.
It’s la revolución
that took the blows
and now waits
to see who will
come out the door
just cracked open
by hermano Raúl
Who will it be—
or the tiger?