Election Day

Overlapping deadlines and teaching have kept me away from the blog recently, but I couldn’t let today go by without writing about the election.

It’s always a strange experience to watch the election from overseas–I’ve been here for 3 Presidential elections and today makes my third midterm. Despite having been through so many elections over here, it’s still surprising how much news coverage is devoted to US politics in the UK. It’s on the BBC every day. The BBC Facebook page cover photo features Emma Gonzalez, Gloria Allred at a #MeToo demonstration, and Trump.

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In 2010 I got a taste of comparative grassroots politics first-hand–I interned and canvassed for my local MP in Leeds during the UK general election, then canvassed in the summer for my senator and representative in Washington state ahead of the US midterm. People typically don’t care as much about midterms as they do for Presidential elections–turnout is always much lower, and it was particularly skewed towards older, conservative voters in 2010. Samantha Bee did a fantastic piece on it during the primaries in 2016:

This piece highlights the problem of voter apathy–the feeling disconnected and unengaged, of thinking that voting doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t make a difference.

It’s also well established that certain demographics are far less likely to vote than others, and they track closely with class status. Jonathan Nagler, the director of New York University’s Politics Data Center, told the New York Times last month that more than 80 percent of college-educated Americans turn out to vote, compared with about 40 percent of Americans who do not hold high school degrees.

“There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian and social policy expert, said in the same article. “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”

It’s something my students discussed last week in a seminar on the public sphere. Nancy Fraser‘s critique of Habermas pointed out that some voices don’t get included–when the public sphere is dominated by college-educated, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, male, WASP voices, it’s to the exclusion of other voices–the working class, LGBTQ+, women, people of colour, disabled, immigrant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, etc.

Obviously I have certain causes and candidates that I want to win tonight, but my biggest hope, as with every election, is that people VOTE. I don’t want to see a repeat of this map, created by Philip Kearney. Just look at Arizona and West Virginia…Shocking. And the US goes around the world preaching about democracy…

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It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens tonight!

 

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The symbolic power of the Nobel Peace Prize

Last Friday,  Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were announced as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

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Before the announcement, there had been speculation that Trump and/or Kim Jong Un and/or Moon Jae-In could win it for their efforts to end the decades-long conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Republican lawmakers wrote to the Nobel committee to nominate Trump, and Moon Jae-In suggested Trump should win it last April. I’m so relieved they didn’t go there. There are so many reasons why Trump shouldn’t be a Nobel laureate–and many of them are highlighted in the laureates who were chosen.

The Nobel committee chose to honor people who campaign against sexual violence, specifically the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Mukwege is a doctor who helps victims, and Murad is a survivor who has spoken out for other victims. Their stories are inspiring and heartbreaking, and they absolutely deserve to be better known–their causes deserve this kind of recognition and publicity.

Looking over a list a previous Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you can see the symbolic power of the prize–how it designates what issues matter, which voices ought to be heard and better known, who we should be paying attention to.

Sometimes it’s very specific, focusing on one country at one specific point in time, such as the 2015 award to the National Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Sometimes it coincides with an anniversary, like the 2012 award to the European Union on its 60th anniversary.

Sometimes, it’s a thinly veiled political statement. We saw that in 2009, when it was awarded to Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. At the time, he hadn’t done anything yet–he was a lawyer and community organizer, a law professor, a State Senator and a junior U.S. Senator, and had only been President for 8 months when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He wrote a couple of brilliant bestselling books, made some fantastic speeches, but in terms of actually taking action beyond words, the award was really premature. The main justification seemed to be that he was an inspiring figure who promoted peace and international cooperation. As much as I loved him, I’ll admit that Obama wasn’t an obvious choice. It was clearly political.

In the same way, the decision to highlight campaigners who fight sexual violence is the Nobel Committee’s way of saying #BelieveWomen. It’s a decision not to celebrate a work-in-progress peace agreement between North and South Korea, but rather to honor the achievements of a doctor who’s devoted his career to helping victims of sexual violence, and to honor a woman who has overcome human trafficking and sexual violence, not just surviving it but speaking out for others affected by it. Instead of honoring a politician who’s been accused of sexual violence (and who’s actually bragged about it in a recording we all heard before the 2016 election), the Nobel Committee chose to honor the victims and those who help them.

Vive la resistance!

 

What the Kavanaugh hearings look like from afar

I’ve been following the confirmation hearings closely this week. As I follow a lot of American journalists & politicians on social media, it’s not surprising that the hearings are the top story everyone seems to be talking about.

What is surprising is the fact that it’s also been a huge news story here. The TV in the foyer of my department always shows BBC News, and I keep seeing live coverage of the hearings when I go to and from my office. Last night I was at an event with a mixed international group of friends (Brazil, Bulgaria, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Chile, etc.) and I spoke with some of the other women about the hearings, and about sexual harassment & sexual assault more generally. Everybody’s watching, and I don’t think Americans are really aware of that.

This morning I saw an article in The New York Times with that very title–a quotation from a reader in Belgium, “I don’t think people in the US know how closely we’re watching this”. My favorite comment came from a New Zealander:

“I have visited America more times than I can count and always loved the country, and most of the people I met were friendly, welcoming and open. I watch in despair as America slides back into the Dark Ages and loses its reputation on the international stage. It is really very sad seeing America implode.”

It feels like the stakes are very high now, in the age of Trump and #metoo. During the 2016 campaign, Trump faced many accusations of sexual assault (there’s even a Wikipedia entry to keep track of them all), and even a recording of him boasting about sexual assault released before the election–and still, 62 million people voted for him.

The #metoo movement has shifted the way (most) media talk about sexual assault, and it’s shaping the way a lot of people think about their own experiences, and those of people they know and love, friends and family members–because when half of the people on your social media feed are sharing #metoo stories, you realize how common sexual harassment and sexual assault really are.

We recently watched Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma again, for the first time in many years. As a child, I loved it–my favorite character was Ado Annie and I used to sing “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” without really understanding what the lyrics meant. I just thought they were funny, because my family always laughed when I sang it!

Watching it now, in the context of #metoo, I found it much scarier and more disturbing than I ever did as a child. When Laurey is sitting in that wagon with Jud Fry, you can feel how nervous she is. The tension is palpable. She’s thinking, “what have I gotten myself into?” and blaming herself because she told Jud she would go to the party with him (before she caught him peeping into her bedroom–another horrible scene). If anything happens (and it did, of course), she only has herself to blame because she put herself in the situation. That’s the story that victims tell themselves, and that’s why victims don’t tell anybody about their assault, for months, years or even for the rest of their lives.

Christine Blasey Ford didn’t tell anybody because she was afraid of getting in trouble for being at that party, where no parents were around, for having a beer at age 15, for putting herself in that situation.

When she realized Trump expected her to have sex with him, Stormy Daniels reportedly thought she deserved it for putting herself in that situation:

“I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ And I just felt like maybe… I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’”

 

In Oklahoma, Laurey escapes from Jud and finds help at the party–her aunt desperately tries to keep the bidding going when Jud stubbornly outbids everyone else for Laurey’s picnic basket, and Curly, the man she actually loves, sacrifices everything he owns to be the highest bidder. When a grateful Laurey tells Curly about Jud’s attack, he believes her.

He doesn’t say, “Well, you did choose to ride alone with him in his wagon,” or ask “What were you wearing? You were dressed up for a party–don’t you think that you were asking for it?”

Instead, Curly asks Laurey to marry him. He wants to protect her from Jud and prevent anything like that ever happening again (male guardianship is thus presented as the only way to prevent sexual harassment and assault, but putting the patriarchy aside…it’s a nice moment).

The #metoo movement is about honoring survivors’ stories. The new hashtag going around, #BelieveWomen, captures this idea perfectly. Rather than doubting and questioning their accounts, or accusing them of complicity (by wardrobe or drinking or “putting themselves in a bad situation”), it asks us to trust that they are fully capable of accurately interpreting events. They know what happened, and if it’s explained away as “horseplay”, “banter”, “Boys will be boys”, then the terrible acts committed against them are just being reinforced over and over again. The perpetrators are being protected and honored every time we choose not to believe victims’ stories–and there’s no greater honor than a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth.

Explaining the Inexplicable

This week I’ve been going back to my survey of American study abroad participants, in which I asked about their experiences of talking about US politics overseas during and after the 2016 election. By far the most frequently asked question they faced was simply “What happened?” They wanted to know why the election had the outcome it did, why Trump won, why Clinton lost, and whether Americans were actually in agreement with Trump’s platform.

It’s been almost two years since the election, and we still don’t really have all of the answers. Hillary Clinton even used that question as a title for her book, which she’s now promoting again for its paperback release.

There are a lot of contributing factors–the electoral college, for starters. Americans might be asked to explain the electoral college to people they meet overseas, often without fully understanding it themselves. There have only been a few elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college, but two of them have now happened in our lifetime, and both were to the detriment of the Democratic party (2000 & 2016). That’s going to raise some eyebrows when we try to explain it overseas.

Another factor is the problem of “fake news”–not Trump’s definition of “fake news”, i.e. every form of journalism but Fox News–but actual misinformation disguised as news and circulated on social media by readers who may or may not be aware of its true nature. Trump’s overuse of the term has turned it into a joke, but the spread of fake news stories that smeared Hillary Clinton may have had real consequences, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ilkley Brewery’s real ale with the slogan “Making Beer Great Again!” and Topshop jeans

There’s also the matter of Russian influence that we still don’t really know the full details of–but a few things are certain: 1) Russia did definitely meddle in the election, 2) they wanted Trump to win, and 3) Trump really doesn’t believe they did.

There are a range of other contributing factors, too: the Democratic party’s in-fighting and prolonged primary with Bernie Sanders, the “baggage” of Bill Clinton’s scandals, James Comey’s investigation announcement that came far too close to the election (and although it turned up nothing, the damage was done), Hillary Clinton’s so-called “likability” problem which is probably just sexism against the first female Presidential candidate, etc.

I’m still going through the survey data, but so far I’m just struck with the enormity of what we Americans abroad are asked to do, when we’re asked to explain the 2016 election. There’s really no explaining it, not then and not even two years on from it.

The added value of diplomats’ spouses

This morning I came across an article about a group of ambassadors’ wives working together on economic inequality–arguably one of the greatest challenges facing the world today, alongside (and linked with) climate change. The Spirit Level is a fascinating book that makes a strong case for inequality being the root cause behind a wide range of problems, from crime to obesity, teen pregnancy to the opioid epidemic.

These ambassadors’ wives, whose husbands are based at embassies in Berlin, are led by Julia Przyłębska, the wife of the Polish ambassador to Germany. Amongst their proposed projects, they want to organise international youth exchanges with a technical, environmental and agricultural focus. Przyłębska noted that diplomats’ wives have access to a highly international network of contacts, and they want to use this network to tackle collective problems:

She added that being wives of diplomats the group is in an ideal position to support those struggling against economic inequalities. 

She said: “Within the embassy, it is easy to bring together an international group of people from different countries in order to exchange and work together on solutions for today‘s global problems: unequal salaries and wages, the rights of the disabled and seniors, the access of the poorest to education. Also we ladies often have the advantage of having enough time, because we are rarely active professionally.” (source)

That last sentence sounds like something out of the 1950s, but it’s a good point: the accompanying spouse (male or female) of an Ambassador does have limitations on his/her career, due to the temporary and mobile nature of a diplomatic career. The realities of moving between countries for undetermined periods of time precludes having much of a professional life, and it’s something that the couple must negotiate between themselves.

This story reminded me of the Fulbright wives I discussed in my chapter for the upcoming book, The Legacy of J. William Fulbright, edited by David J. Snyder, Alessandro Brogi, Giles Scott-Smith, University of Kentucky Press (forthcoming 2018).

My chapter, Fulbright Women in the Global Intellectual Elite, includes a section on the contributions of accompanying spouses to the goals of public diplomacy. In my archival research, I noticed the prominence of Fulbrighters’ wives in the field–they volunteered at local schools, joined community organisations, hosted parties for their husbands’ colleagues and students, etc. In some cases, they were arguably more closely integrated into the local host community than their husbands were. By engaging in these kinds of activities, they were directly contributing to the culture learning processes that are an expected outcome of exchange diplomacy.

This has observation important implications for our understanding of how public diplomacy works–who the key actors are, how people engage with hosts, what kinds of activities enable culture learning to take place. The wives were not the recipients of grants, they didn’t attend orientation programmes or briefings, they had no formal role in exchange diplomacy–yet they formed lasting ties with members of the host community and played a significant role in culture learning processes.

These women (and male spouses of grantees) represent “added value” for exchange diplomacy practices. Their contribution has often been overlooked, or even discouraged. Senator Fulbright himself believed the grants should go to unmarried scholars, who would be able to focus on their work and engage with their colleagues without the ‘distractions’ of a family life. I would argue that this view is very much based on Senator Fulbright’s experience as a Rhodes Scholar. Bachelorhood was one of the original requirements of the program–the Rhodes Scholarships were even opened to women long before they were opened to married candidates (1977 vs. 1995, p. 345). This view fails to see the potential for spouses and children to enrich the culture learning experiences of an exchange programme. A spouse, particularly one who cannot work due to visa regulations and therefore has a lot of free time, can connect with locals in the community on a much broader and deeper level than the grantee can. Children can integrate their parents into local schools, parent-teacher associations, community activities and playgroups. They can represent added value for the grantee, not a mere ‘distraction’.

What I’m Reading

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Mama, Ph.D: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008), edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant.

I bought this book almost 3 years ago and I’m finally getting around to reading it, which tells you something about the reality of motherhood and academic life. I read a few chapters with George napping on me today and I love it.

When I bought it, I hoped for some tips and lessons learned, but it’s more theoretical and reflective than that–after all, it was written by academics. I’ve also been surprised by the extent to which I identify with some of their confessions. In the first chapter, Jamie Warner (one of the few contributors who is not yet a mother) voiced some of the very same questions that I’ve considered over the years:

“And it gets even more complicated. What does it mean to be childless and then not be thin (no pregnancy weight to lose), not have a twenty-five-page CV (what am I doing with all of my time?), or not be a gourmet cook (with no little people who won’t eat anything that isn’t beige, covered in cheese, or deep fried)? What if my career doesn’t take off? I can’t blame it on soccer practice. Do I have an obligation to work every evening, serve on more committees, be a better teacher, and become a publishing machine because I don’t have familial obligations? Is being ‘average’ considered a failure in academia if one doesn’t have a family?” (p. 10)

 

When I was in her shoes, contemplating the big questions of career and family and work-life balance, I wondered whether having a baby so soon after finishing my PhD was partly a delaying tactic, whether I was using it as an excuse for my lack of publications and inability to find a proper (i.e. full-time, permanent, tenure-track) academic job. I half-jokingly reasoned that if it takes a few years to establish your career in academia, you might as well have a kid while you wait for publications to come through and jobs in your field to come up. Now, a few years on, when I voice concerns about my career trajectory, they’re often met with “Oh, but you had a baby”–as if that absolves me from any blame or guilt for not having published more, for not securing a post-doc or a research grant, etc. They’re trying to be comforting, but I don’t see it that way–I hold myself to a higher standard than they do (we’re always our own worst critics).

This book hasn’t really answered any questions for me yet, but it’s comforting to hear other peoples’ experiences and think “It’s not just me!” (On that note, I’ll also recommend Brene Brown’s work)

 

 

Leftover Women and International Higher Education

Over the past three years, I’ve been teaching and supervising Masters students who are (~80%) Chinese women in their early to mid-twenties. In Leeds, they’re independent young grad students, exploring Britain and Europe, working hard in the library, socialising with their peers, and video chatting with friends and family back home. In China, they’re considered ‘leftover women’–剩女shèngnǚ. 

‘Leftover women’ is a derogatory term for unmarried women over 25 (the Government’s Women’s Federation definition says 27), often highly educated, urban professionals. My students fit this description, and some have opened up to me about their anxiety over the pressure to get married. One mentioned it while asking my advice about doing a PhD. She wasn’t sure whether to apply, because her family didn’t want her to–they thought a Masters would hurt her chances of getting married, and a PhD would destroy those chances completely.

I find it so heartbreaking that a parent wouldn’t support a child who wanted to pursue a Masters/PhD/any degree, because they thought 1) marriage was more important than education/career, and 2) men would reject educated women. On the first point, the two realms of career and marriage don’t have to be mutually exclusive for women, because they certainly aren’t for men. Nobody ever talks about men “having it all” (apart from this awesome satire on Facebook) if they want a career and a family. On the second point, if a man rejects a woman for having a degree or a career, the flaw is with him, not her.

Sometimes my students will look at the pictures of my family on my desk and congratulate me–they’re impressed by the fact I have a PhD, but even more impressed that I’ve managed to avoid being a ‘leftover woman’. I want to tell them no, anybody can get married and have a kid–the PhD is a bigger deal. But the truth is that it’s something I thought about at that age, too. When my sister was 29, she told me she was so relieved that she was married and had a baby by 30, as if it were some kind of deadline. At the time, I was 22 and very single, so the words “married and baby by 30” stuck in my head and the deadline began to loom. I was 23 when I met my husband, and until then I’d suspected that I was destined to be single. I’d been single all through my undergrad years, which I thought were the prime dating years. I watched friends couple up and felt like I’d failed, like I wasn’t attractive enough and that I might as well just carry on with grad school, so I could provide a nice life for all of my future cats.

It’s sheer luck that I happened to meet the right person at the right time, when we were both in the right mindset and place in life, we both wanted kids, etc. I like to think, however, that I would have been happy on different trajectories, too–ones that didn’t include “married and baby by 30”, but would be equally valid, socially accepted, fulfilling choices. I suppose that’s the difference between the “married and baby by 30” and the “leftover woman” concept–my deadline was self-imposed and nobody would have been disappointed by my single status after a certain age, whereas the “leftover woman” label comes from the Government, from parents, from society, etc. It’s a matter of internal vs. external pressure, perhaps.

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(Maybe some external pressure, too, in the form of rom-coms…)

Resistance to the ‘leftover woman’ idea has increased in recent years. My students are enthusiastic about feminist theory–it’s a very popular optional module and they often want to use feminist approaches in their dissertation research. There seems to be an effort to change minds in China, too. In the video below, parents and daughters express their anxieties over singlehood and marriage–it’s sad, sweet and moving (even if it is produced by SK-II, a skincare brand, much like those Dove  adverts):

 

For further reading:

Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China(2014)

China’s Leftover Women: Late Marriage among Professional Women and its Consequences (2015)