The Utility of Women’s Caucuses in Today’s Political Climate

This week in North Philly NotesAnna Mitchell Mahoney, author of Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures, writes about the importance of women and bipartisan caucuses.

The toxic masculinity displayed perpetually by politicians and tracked by scholars (https://www.genderwatch2018.org/) in our current political climate reminds us of the importance of formal and intentional women’s spaces. Women’s organizations inside and outside of institutions serve many purposes including strategic planning and action for policy change as well as support for women who do disproportionate amounts of household, professional, and emotional labor. My book, Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures: The Creation of Women’s Caucuses, examines under what conditions women state legislators carve out a space for themselves within legislatures where men make up three-quarters of members.

Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures_smThe more things change, the more they stay the same.

My research found that many of the reasons women formed caucuses in the 1970s and 1980s are very similar to the motivations of today’s women caucus entrepreneurs. The bias and exclusion women felt when they were increasing their numbers in state legislatures continued to be reported by the women legislators I interviewed between 2009-2013 when their numbers plateaued around 24%. Apart from experiences of discrimination, women also reported wanting relationships with other women who shared their experiences as a woman in politics to learn from them and feel supported. This year has seen an increase in the number of women filing to run for state legislative seats (https://www.genderwatch2018.org/). If more women enter legislatures, will they seek out women’s only spaces?

What is in it for them?

In 2016, 22 states have such organizations whose missions vary from agenda setting policy caucuses, to those who take up policies on an ad hoc basis, to those whose primary mission is social – supporting each other as women, no policy consensus necessary. These caucuses allow legislators to express certain identities, signifying themselves as experts in certain policy areas and advocates for certain constituencies. Caucuses help members build relationships and gain information useful for accomplishing their goals. These groups also provide opportunities for leadership. Other studies have shown, depending on the proportion of women in the majority party, the presence of a women’s caucus may be correlated with higher proportions of women in leadership positions, increasing their status within the institution, getting them closer to the reins of power themselves (Kanthak and Krause 2012). Savvy entrepreneurs who want to strengthen women’s caucuses use many of these arguments when trying to motivate other women to join while simultaneously refuting counterclaims that women no longer need these spaces or that bipartisan caucuses themselves are inappropriate.

What is in it for all of us?

In light of today’s hyper-partisanship, one may ask what use a bipartisan caucus is, especially if it is only social in nature. Does it really matter? If the other side is populated by traitors and extremists, why even attempt relationships? In subsequent research, my colleague Mirya Holman and I found that states with women’s caucuses (even those that were only social) had an increased co-sponsorship rate among women indicating that policy outcomes are possible – even when policy is taken explicitly off the table for the caucus. Further, during the Kavanaugh hearings, much was made of the bipartisan relationship between Senator Coons and Senator Flake.  Bipartisan, personal relationships never go out of style in legislatures – even if they are strained during hyper partisan times (Victor and Ringe 2009).

Bipartisan caucuses are one place such relationships are formed in legislatures that prioritize partisan loyalty and gender norm expectations. In addition to the benefits for participants, women’s caucuses make three significant interventions to legislative institutions. First, by creating a legislative organization that signifies gender as politically salient, women legislators are challenging the false gender neutrality of politics. In my book, I make visible male dominance within these institutions that many consider androgynous. Observers may note this advantage in the social norms of legislatures where men call out women for speaking in groups larger than pairs, where men exclude women from social gatherings where they actually make the deals, and through more formal processes where party leaders concentrate women legislators in less powerful committee appointments and exclude them from leadership positions.

Second, the establishment of women’s caucuses inside male-dominated legislative institutions can provide a safe space for marginalized legislators to support each other, as well as help develop and refine legislative initiatives. Caucuses are a way to counteract institutional norms that may require women to play a man’s game, adopt a particular political persona, or adhere to someone else’s definition of appropriate political priorities. When gender norms are challenged or broadened in a public space like legislatures, the possibilities for all women grow.

Finally, as conduits for advocacy organizations into the legislature, women’s caucuses may contribute to better representation for many different constituencies.  These potential interventions are significant and indicate the importance of these organizations beyond the adoption (or not) of women-friendly policy.

Scholars must continue to probe the value or necessity of these bipartisan organizations. One day they may no longer be necessary as women are wholly incorporated into the institutions in which they serve. However, it may be that women will always seek comradery and support from those with similar lived experiences, regardless of how far their workplaces come in accommodating their presence. For now, the symbolic importance of women’s spaces within male-dominated institutions continues to signal that women belong in office and women can work together (even if in limited ways). More tangibly, the handful of women’s caucuses that participate in recruiting and training women for campaigns hold out hope that they may have a few new members come next session.

References

Kanthak, Kristin, and George A. Krause. 2012. The Diversity Paradox: Political Parties, Legislatures, and the Organizational Foundations of Representation in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Victor, Jennifer Nicholl and Nils Ringe. 2009. “The Social Utility of Informal Institutions: Caucuses as Networks in the 110th U.S. House of Representatives.” American Politics Research. 37(5): 742-766.

 

 

 

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Tell us your first work experience and let’s see how jobs differ by gender

This week in North Philly Notes, Ryan Mulligan, the acquiring editor of Yasemin Besen-Cassino’s The Cost of Being a Girlpresents his survey findings about gender and first jobs. 

One of the most exciting parts of my job as an acquisitions editor at a university press is going to academic conferences. Stop laughing; I’m serious!

Conferences give editors a chance to meet potential authors in the fields in which we publish, who are also our readers. We learn what exciting work is being done, what the next frontiers of the field are, and what issues are on the minds of the discipline. They also give us a chance to show off our own work. Each conference features an exhibit hall where academic publishers set up a booth and show off their recent books. We want the scholars in attendance to discover the arguments and scholarship we’ve put out into the marketplace of ideas. We want them to buy our books and assign them in their classes. And we want them to understand what sort of book project we’re excited about and see us as a potential home for their own book projects in the future.

I wanted to try something new in Temple University Press’s booth this year at the American Sociological Society meeting, held in Philadelphia this year from August 11-14. One of our books, The Cost of Being a Girl, by Yasemin Besen-Cassino, received considerable media attention over the past year, from CNN, the Washington Post, MTV, and elsewhere.

In the book, Besen-Cassino looks at the gender wage gap among teen workers, thoroughly investigating what leads working teen girls to earn less than working teen boys. This is especially important because the factors that are usually cited to explain the wage gap among adults – work experience, obligations at home, reasons for working – do not apply to teens who are all in the same entry-level, student-worker boat. She finds that girls are sorted by gender towards care-work like babysitting, where their responsibilities and hours grow over-time but where asking for a raise is considered a betrayal of the values needed for the job, unlike, say, the freelance landscaping jobs preferred by teen boys.

In employment, this sorting of labor by gender continues as managers tend to track male laborers towards back-of-house jobs that have the potential for promotion, whereas girls are placed in customer service under the assumption that they are better suited to accommodate customers. The unique pressures of the aesthetic labor, hospitality, and care work in which employers place teen girl workers detract from these workers’ wellness throughout their lives, Besen-Cassino finds, to the point where girls who do not work at all as teens show a better quality of life years later. Besen-Cassino’s natural story-telling, compelling accounts, and engaging prose, coupled with the relatability of the subject matter makes this book a great candidate for use in sociology courses on work, gender, and youth and I wanted to find a way to get sociologists thinking about the book and the issues it raised.

CostPosterBoothMy colleagues and I set up a poster board in our booth at ASA, featuring the book’s cover and asking passers-by “What was your first job? Tell us your first work experience and let’s see how jobs differ by gender.” We provided blue, pink, and yellow post-it notes, labeled male, female, and non-binary (respectively) so that participants could see at a glance what sorts of jobs each gender identity worked. My colleagues started us off so that folks in the booth wouldn’t be intimidated about “breaking the ice.” Throughout the conference, lots of booth attendants came through and filled out a post-it note. 37 women and 22 men participated. I have to say that I am not a social scientist and while the study that inspired this exercise was extremely rigorous, my own analysis of the responses we received at ASA is not backed up by much in the way of statistical rigor or methods theory. Even if I had those tools at my disposal, I have doubts about the statistical significance of my sample with regards to conference attendees, not to mention to sociologists generally, to working teens in the US, or to living human beings globally. This is not a scientific study; I’m just an English major who reads sociology for a living. But the fun and the point of the exercise is to get us thinking about the principles Professor Besen-Cassino introduces in her book and if we can see them playing out in our sample. Let’s see what we found.

Jobs that appeared multiple times in each gender

Among our men, we have a couple bus boys, a couple paper boys (one woman also delivered newspapers), two journalists, and two young men who cleaned. There were also two research assistants, indicating that these men did not work before they started the careers they presumably hold now as academics.

Among women, we had 11 babysitters, three women offering cleaning services, three laborers, four working at eateries, and two working for clothing/accessory retailers.

Freelance vs. employed positions

Men: One out of 23 worked freelance

Women: 13 out of 37 worked freelance

It’s possible that some of the jobs I assumed were employed were not, of course.

This result lines up with Professor Besen-Cassino’s research, which tells us that men tend to more readily start their working lives for employers, whereas more women start freelance and transition to an employed job. This means that men tend to have more experience at a given age, and are more likely to have been given a raise or been promoted. Women working freelance in The Cost of Being a Girl describe difficulty raising their rates, as their clients read this action as mercenary and out-of-step with the work being provided, usually care work. Which brings us to my next point.

Babysitter, tutor, instructor, human care work

Men: One out of 23 performed this sort of work

Women 15 out of 37 performed this sort of work

Women were most likely to be taking care of somebody. Professor Besen-Cassino shows that expertise in carework is often interpreted as natural rather than a cultivated skill meriting recompense. Moreover, the work tends to grow the longer someone is in the position, but workers who ask for raises are chided for putting themselves over person being cared for.

Among retail/service industries, Customer/Client facing vs back of shop

Men: Of nine respondents working retail/service jobs, one specified a customer-facing job, five specified jobs that did not primarily interact with customers, and three did not specify.

Women: Of seven respondents working retail/service jobs, four specified a customer-facing job, none specified jobs that did not primarily interact with customers, and four did not specify.

I may be prejudicing my results here somewhat by classifying “busboy” as not customer -facing even though I acknowledge that they are seen by and sometimes interact with customers. My logic is that servers take on the interactive responsibility of communicating with customers, taking orders, responding to complaints and requests, and ensuring customer well-being that I’m trying to get at with this data point, so I classified those server jobs as customer-facing and busboys as not.

Clerical/Research/Desk Job

Four women out of 37 had what I would call desk jobs.

Seven out of 23 men had these jobs.

These jobs tended to be higher skilled, which might reasonably be better compensated or put the worker on a career track that tends towards better compensation. Moreover, most don’t call for the performative or aesthetic labor that makes a worker worry about their body, their clothes, or their presentation on a moment-to-moment basis.

Most interesting jobs: Bucker of wood (as an 11 year old boy – note: I had to look up what this meant; it means chopping a tree into logs); Statistician at Disney World (female respondent); tour guide (in our sample, one male and one female each had this job, with the female specifying that she directed a cruise on the Yangtze river), “making pork pies and sausage rolls in a butcher’s bakery” (male), serving raccoon at a wedding (female), corn detassler (female), migrant farm work (female), garment factory worker (female), and “held a sign on a street corner” (female).

And one woman’s first job was as a book reviewer, so I hope she in particular picked up The Cost of Being a Girl.

Celebrating Banned Books Week with a University Press community response to censorship

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of Banned Books Week, we repost an article by Claire Kirch that appeared in Publishers Weekly on September 13, about Target’s practice of redacting certain key words in the product descriptions of their books and how the University Press community responded. 

Publishers Call Out Target for ‘Censoring’ Book Descriptions

A number of publishers, most of them university presses, are taking Target Corporation to task for redacting certain key words in the product descriptions of their books. They say the Minneapolis-based chain retailer has scrubbed certain words from their descriptions, including “transgender,” “queer,” and even the term “Nazi.”

While some of the redacted product descriptions were corrected by Wednesday morning, a number of publishers say their product descriptions currently contain asterisks instead of key words.

PW reached out to Target’s public relations department several times about the glitch but, as of press time, had received no response.

Heather Gernenz, publicity manager at the University of Illinois Press, said Cáel Keegan, the author of the November release Lana and Lilly Wachowski, alerted the press on Monday that the word “transgender” had been replaced in three places by asterisks in the product description on Target.com. The book is about transgender siblings,

Gernenz requested online that the description be corrected. And, although the product description for the paperback edition of the title was quickly changed, Gernenz had to make a second request before the description for the hardcover edition was updated by Wednesday morning.

Publishers told PW that Target.com has fixed some initially-altered product descriptions. But several books having to do with LGBTQ issues continue to feature redacted words, such as We Make It Better: The LGBTQ Community and their Positive Contributions to Society (Mango, Oct.) by Eric Rosswood and Kathleen Archambeau; and Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Univ. of Calif. Press, Jan.) by Jack Halberstam.

Titles with LGBTQ themes are not the only ones being affected on Target.com, either. Some publishers told PW that their books about Nazi Germany also contain redactions. For example, Adolf Hitler’s last name along with the term “Nazi,” have been scrubbed from the product description of World War II: The illustrated Story of the Second World War by John Burns (Classic Illustrated Comics, 2015).

As it happens, Target has redacted words from book product descriptions before. In late December, Nina Packebush tweeted about the fact that the word “queer” had been removed from the product description of her YA novel, Girls Like Me (Bedazzled Ink, 2017), about a pregnant teen who identifies as pansexual.

Packebush told PW on Wednesday that a Target representative had responded to her complaint by explaining that the company regarded the word “queer” as a slur, and thus removed it from the description. After pressure from Packebush, her publisher, and others, the word was put back into the product description by January 6. Subsequently, however, Target replaced the word “queer” with “trans.” The change, Packebush points out, leaves the site with an inaccurate reference to the book’s protagonist.

According to Ohio State University Press director Tony Sanfilippo, Target’s move might be a well-meaning policy gone awry. “I understand that they might want to avoid controversy. But if they want to keep Nazis off their site, or Nazi-themed products out of their search results, there are ways of doing that that don’t censor. If you can’t say ‘Nazi,’ you can’t stop Nazis. And if you can’t search for books about the trans community and trans issues, your search engine and your corporate philosophy are morally flawed.”

Claire Kirch is the Midwest correspondent for Publishers Weekly.

Copyright (c) 2018 Publishers Weekly PWxyz LLC. Used by permission.

In winning U.S. House primary, Ilhan Omar breaks barriers and sets an example

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post a recent editorial, written by Stefanie Chambers, author of Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus that appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about Ilhan Omar winning the U.S. House primary.

Ilhan Omar’s victory Aug. 14 in the DFL primary for Congress is a cause for celebration. Her triumph is especially gratifying for those in Minnesota and beyond who value opportunity and democratic inclusion.

Omar is well-positioned to become the first Somali-American and female Muslim member of the U.S. House. Moreover, she may enter the House with another Muslim woman, Rashida Tlaib, who won a Democratic primary in Michigan.

Omar’s political rise from state representative to congressional candidate implores us to consider how she achieved so much political success — against the backdrop of rising hostile and hate-filled rhetoric aimed at both Somalis and Muslim Americans — in a few short years.

In 2016 Omar was elected to the Minnesota Legislature, becoming the first Somali-American elected to a state house. She was an against-the-odds candidate, because Somali-Americans are often viewed with suspicion even in the communities they call home. Her election provided the media with a positive story about new Americans thriving in our democracy.

Omar’s success is a sharp contrast to the negativity espoused by America’s current president. During a 2016 campaign stop, then-candidate Donald Trump failed to acknowledge the progress being made in the Twin Cities to incorporate Somali refugees into the fabric of the larger community. Rather, out of ignorance or political expediency, he reiterated many misperceptions about such refugees, stating, “Here in Minnesota you have seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state, without your knowledge, without your support or approval.”

Trump went on to falsely state that “everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota.”

During Omar’s 2017 appearance on “The Daily Show,” she told host Trevor Noah, “I am America’s hope and the president’s nightmare.”

SomalisintheTwinCitiesThe hope that Omar mentions was apparent when I was conducting fieldwork in the Twin Cities in 2014 for my book Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus. At the time, Omar was a City Council staffer, already a well-known presence in the community and a source of inspiration to young Somali men and women.

During one interview with a group of Somali youth leaders, one woman told me: “She fights for what she believes in and has a public presence. We admire her willingness to stand up for the things she believes are right. She’s smart and knows how the system works. … She’s our mentor.”

This aligns with the theory that when young people have role models in public life they’re more likely to feel included and consider careers in public service, I suspect many young Somalis/Muslims were inspired by her historic first.

Omar’s victory is not the only Somali-American political success story in Minnesota. There are now several Somali-Americans in elective office. Others have run unsuccessfully. With so few women or people of color running for office proportionally in the United States, this trend is promising.

The success in Minnesota is also the result of innovative initiatives by political, business and charitable leaders in the state to expand opportunities and incorporation of Somali refugees and other recent immigrants. Outreach efforts have led to employment of Somalis in state and local government agencies and police departments. A growing number of Somali-Americans hold positions of leadership in labor unions.

Indeed, the Twin Cities are often viewed as a model for innovation by policymakers from regions around the world struggling to incorporate refugees into their communities. The combination of so many Somali-Americans’ desire to serve the public and the receptiveness of various community leaders has created opportunities for a group often vilified and condemned by white nationalists and their panderers.

We should all be proud of Ilhan Omar and the other Somali-American Minnesotans who have chosen public service in order to strengthen their communities. Political and economic leaders in other states should take a close look at how Minnesota has opened doors for new Americans eager to be part of our democracy.

Stefanie Chambers is professor of political science and chair at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus: Immigrant Incorporation in New Destinations, published by Temple University Press. She is producing the documentary Dreaming in Somali: New Americans in the Twin Cities.

Yes, trafficking is bad for sex workers. But “getting tough on traffickers” can make their lives worse.

This week in North Philly Notes, Carisa Showden and Samantha Majic, co-authors of Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S., write about the importance of listening to sex workers, and not just passing laws and policies that aim to catch and punish traffickers.

Through newspaper stories, popular films, and Dateline exposés (to name just some sources), the term “sex trafficking” is now commonplace, bringing to mind images and stories of young girls trapped in vans and sold for sex in strange and dark places. These ideas about sex trafficking have informed public policy in the U.S. and internationally: local, regional, and national governments, as well as international governing bodies, have supported and passed laws and policies that aim to catch and punish traffickers and other parties who fuel this crime. Yet despite these laws, those they are supposed to help are also often their most vocal critics.

This disconnect between the ideas about an issue and its related policy outcomes is not unique to sex trafficking, but recent legal changes make interrogating this gap particularly urgent. The 2018 Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) (SESTA/FOSTA) provides a recent example of popular narratives trumping evidence. By making website publishers responsible for third parties who post ads for prostitution, SESTA/FOSTA effectively renders illegal the websites that sex workers use to sell services, screen clients, and warn other sex workers about dangerous clients. SESTA/FOSTA is based on the idea that persons in the sex industry are there against their will (trafficked), and that websites only enable their victimization.

Sex workers resisted this characterization, arguing mightily, but unsuccessfully, against  SESTA/FOSTA, and the effects have been immediate. For example, out of fear of violating the law, many sex workers started “preemptively closing sex work-related Facebook groups, … talking about taking down bad date lists, etc.,” all of which were essential to their safety and security. In another example, Backpage immediately shut down its dating and related ad services. With Backpage gone, some sex workers have returned to the streets and law enforcement receives fewer tips from online activity, making the tracking of actual trafficking more difficult. As Notre Dame Law Professor Alex F. Levy writes, “Backpage sets a trap for traffickers: lured by the prospect of reaching a large, centralized repository of customers, traffickers end up revealing themselves to law enforcement and victim advocates. There’s nothing to suggest that Backpage causes them to be victimized, but plenty of reason to believe that, without it, they would be much harder to find.” And outside of the U.S., including places like New Zealand where sex work is legal, the disappearance of Backpage “has, without warning, taken livelihoods away, leaving workers without the resources to operate their businesses or, in some cases, survive.”

Youth Who Trade_smNeither the failure to listen to sex workers nor a new law making it harder to fight the very thing it targets is surprising to us, given what we found when researching our book Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S.: Intersectionality, Agency, and Vulnerability. For example, policies that target trafficking of young people take a law-and-order approach, focusing on criminal gangs, “bad men” (pimps), and very young girl victims. But as our research indicates, young people commonly enter the sex trades through a highly variable mix of “self-exploitation,” family exploitation, and peer-recruitment, most frequently to meet their basic needs for shelter and food. And youth who are poor and housing insecure because of racialized poverty and gender discrimination are particularly vulnerable. All people under the age of 18 who sell or trade sex for any reason are defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as trafficking victims, yet most of them are ignored by “get tough on crime” policies. As a result, while we must protect all youth from persons who may harm and exploit them, the majority of young people who trade sex need interventions like housing support that is safe for youth of all genders. And when they are trading sex to afford food or shelter, they need to do this in the least dangerous way possible—something online services facilitated.

The more vulnerable people are, the less likely they are to be listened to, and the more likely they are to be talked about. We saw this in SESTA/ FOSTA, where sex workers and their allies lobbied hard to prevent the bill’s passage. And we see this with youth-specific bills as well. Politicians talk a lot about vulnerable youth in the abstract, but they rarely talk or listen to them directly. Yet sex workers and young people have a lot to say about what works and doesn’t work for helping them survive and improve their lives. Hopefully researchers and policy makers will start to listen to them.

A sneak peek at the new issue of KALFOU

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase the new issue of KALFOU, and the symposium on race and science, a highlight of Volume 5 issue 1.

Volume 5 Issue 1 of KALFOU features a symposium on race and science in which distinguished scholars from across the disciplines address the ways in which current developments in genomic research pose new challenges for analyses of the social construction of race. Advances in genetic research have provoked a revival of the claim that race has a genetic basis, a claim that has now been embraced by pharmaceutical companies seeking to make profits by marketing drugs that profess to address illnesses endemic to specific racial groups and by social scientists eager to explain racially skewed life outcomes as the product of the genetic defects of aggrieved groups rather than the result of racist practices, processes, and structures.  The symposium features astute and insightful articles by anthropologists Michael Montoya and John Hartigan, historians Terence Keel and Gabriela Laveaga-Soto, sociologists Ruha Benjamin and James Doucet Battle, and physician and public health scholar Claudia Chaufan.  Although these authors deploy a diverse range of scholarly methods and perspectives, their arguments cohere around an insistence that genetic research itself actually shows that race is a political rather than a biological category and that the “new” arguments about sciences and race are simply reiterations of very old forms of scientific racism.

George Lipsitz

Kalfou_generic-cover_102015Kalfou Vol. 5 Issue 1. Table of Contents:

SYMPOSIUM ON RACE AND SCIENCE • edited by Terence D. Keel and George Lipsitz

Race on Both Sides of the Razor • Terence D. Keel
Facing Up to Neanderthals • John Hartigan Jr.
What Can the Slim Initiative in Genomic Medicine for the Americas (SIGMA)
Contribute to Preventing, Treating, or Decreasing the Impact of Diabetes
among Mexicans and Latin Americans? • Claudia Chaufan
Race, Genetics, and Health: Transforming Inequities or Reproducing
a Fallacy? • Michael J. Montoya
Prophets and Profits of Racial Science • Ruha Benjamin
Race and the Epigenetics of Memory • Gabriela Soto Laveaga
Ennobling the Neanderthal: Racialized Texts and Genomic Admixture • James Doucet-Battle
Concluding Remarks: Social Justice Requires Biocritical Inquiry • Terence D. Keel

FEATURE ARTICLE
Feminist Mobilization in MEChA: A Southern California Case Study • Gustavo Licón

IDEAS, ART, AND ACTIVISM
TALKATIVE ANCESTORS
Cedric Robinson: “For a People to Survive in Struggle”

LA MESA POPULAR
The Septuagenarians’ Sankofa Dialogue • Kalamu ya Salaam and Jerry W. Ward Jr.

ART AND SOCIAL ACTION
The Play’s the Thing: An Interview with Rosten Woo • J.V. Decemvirale

MOBILIZED 4 MOVEMENT
“It Is Time for Artists to Be Heard”: Artists and Writers for Freedom, 1963–1964 • Judith E. Smith

TEACHING AND TRUTH
A UK–US “Black Lexicon of Liberation”: A Bibliography of African American
and Black British Artists, Artworks, and Art-Making Traditions • Celeste-Marie Bernier

IN MEMORIAM
James Oliver Horton, 1943–2017 • Melani McAlister

Magnus Hirschfeld at 150: Sexual Rights and Social Wrongs

This week in North Philly Notes, Heike Bauer, author of The Hirschfeld Archives, blogs about Magnus Hirschfeld’s impact as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

This year marks the 150th anniversary since the birth of Jewish sexologist and sexual activist Magnus Hirschfeld. Born on May 14, 1868 in the small Baltic town of Kolberg, Hirschfeld, a trained doctor, is one of the founders of the modern homosexual rights movement in the West. He is best known today for his efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Germany and for his foundational studies of what he called “transvestism,” a term he coined to distinguish gender from sexuality, anticipating the later trans vocabulary.

In 1919 Hirschfeld founded the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences. Housed in an imposing building in central Berlin, the Institute was a place for research, political activism and public education. Here Hirschfeld and his colleagues worked on all kinds of questions relating to sex and gender. The Institute was a clinic and research facility, hosted public talks, and provided sex education and counselling services. But the Institute was not only a place of work. It was also a home. Hirschfeld lived there with his partner Karl Giese; other rooms were rented out to permanent and temporary staff and visitors from around the world, most famously perhaps the American writer Christopher Isherwood who gave an account of his time at the Institute in Christopher and His Kind (1976). Hirschfeld’s widowed eldest sister Recha Tobias for a time hosted lodgers in her rooms at the Institute including the philosophers Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, although they did not engage with the Institute’s activities. Another famous inhabitant, Willi Münzenberg, the press officer of the German communist part, similarly remained detached from the sex researchers, but his partner, the journalist Babette Gross, noted that the busy, reform-oriented Institute environment was a great place to conduct semi-secret meetings of the Komintern, the communist international.

Hirschfeld Archives_smThe Institute of Sexual Science encapsulates what was new about Hirschfeld’s sexological work: unlike his medico-forensic predecessors, he was overtly politically motivated, believing that science could bring about social change and justice. As a socialist who engaged little with party politics, his sexual activism focused especially on the decriminalization and destigmatization of homosexuality. Hirschfeld produced, for example, the first surveys about suicide among homosexuals, using the data to support his argument that persecution could make lives feel unlivable. On a more practical level, Hirschfeld and his colleagues supported those whose bodies did not match their assigned gender.

The Institute’s doctors were among the pioneers of ‘sex change’ procedures. One former patient, Dora, who was born Rudoph Richter, was employed at the Institute as a maid, providing her with a secure income whilst maintaining, as the historian Katie Sutton has pointed out, fairly bourgeois domestic arrangements at this in many ways radical home.

Given Hirschfeld’s focus on supporting those whose bodies and desires did not match the norms of their time, it is no surprise that his name has become a byword for sexual activism. Today there exist numerous LGBTIQ organisations that have adopted his name. In Philadelphia, for example, a Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund was set up in 2004 for HIV/AIDS activism and to support the LGBT community. In Germany, there is a Magnus Hirschfeld Society dedicated to his legacy whilst in 2011 the German state itself set up a foundation in Hirschfeld’s name, the Bundesstiftung Magnus Hirschfeld. It aims to foster ‘acceptance’ for people who are not heterosexual and stop the discrimination of LGBTIQ people.

The Bundesstiftung has organised a special ceremony to celebrate Hirschfeld’s 150th  birthday. Featuring scholars and senior politicians, its focus lies on Hirschfeld’s achievements, especially, as the related publicity material suggests, on his homosexual rights efforts. The Bundesstiftung recognizes elsewhere that sexual politics go beyond same-sex rights when it includes intersex people in its mission statement. While there is some debate about whether or not intersex should be included in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer rainbow, such visibility matters because intersex people still remain marginalized in many political debates. The artist DEL LAGRACE VOLCANO has long worked to challenge this absence in the VISIBLY INTERSEX project [http://www.dellagracevolcano.com/gallery/visibly-intersex-35548944]. In the U.K., a new exhibition entitled Transitional States: Hormones at the Crossroads of Art and Science, currently on display at the Peltz Gallery in London, asks questions about gender and the uses of hormones in defying or upholding social norms.

Such interventions are vital given that many intersex infants to this day are subjected to the violence of “corrective” surgeries that conform to social expectation rather than medical need and are undertaken without consent of the young person subjected to them. Hirschfeld did not see young children in his clinic, but he did gather a large collection of photographs of the genitals of intersex people. These photographs are reminders of the emphatic limits of Hirschfeld practice. They reduce people to their bodies. Hirschfeld’s related writings on intersex add little context about the persons under scrutiny, reinforcing their sense of isolation, which stands in marked contrast to the affirmative emphasis on community and collective identity that characterizes Hirschfeld’s work on homosexuality.

In my book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death and Modern Queer Culture I turn attention to these today lesser-known aspects of Hirschfeld’s work. They complicate straightforward celebrations of his achievements. 150 years after Hirschfeld’s birth, it remains critical to remember that the struggle for homosexual rights was not a fight for social justice per se.

 

 

 

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