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Alabama Gilead: The Beguiling of Conservative Women

for Jenny Nixon

Last weekend, I attended the National Gathering of the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, a denomination with a history of social justice advocacy that dates back to colonial New England. The UCC has always, to my knowledge, ordained women ministers, and it is a space where I feel welcome to offer and develop my gifts of leadership. One evening at dinner, I gravitated to a woman dining alone and asked if I could join her. I didn’t join her because she was alone; I joined her because I had been in a previous session with her and heard some of her story. I remember she had said: I was in Alabama during the Civil Rights years, and the League of Women Voters kept me sane. I wanted to hear more.

Her name is Jenny Nixon, and she is a resident of the Uplands Retirement Community in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, which, if you ask me, is one of the best kept secrets in retirement living. Jenny was hard to miss all weekend because of her booming voice, head of solid gray hair, piercing blue eyes, and the shape her body has decided to take as she got older, which required her to use a walker. Yes, I’d appreciate your company, she told me. I eat more slowly than most people these days. I fetched us a couple of pieces of strawberry short cake for us and sat down.

League of Women Voters, feminist, feminism, voting rights, women, women's history

League of Women Voters, 1970’s

Jenny was born in Oregon in 1933 but had gone to college in California and lived for some time in Washington State. I’m a Westerner, she told me with a glint in her eye. What attracted me to her was that she had been a women’s rights activist in the 1960s and 1970s. It isn’t too often that I get to meet a feminist–a real feminist–from the “women’s lib” era. But that wasn’t the only reason I wanted to hear more of her story; our stories, as it turns out, had something in common: Alabama. Will you tell me more about your time in Alabama? I asked her. I think it’s important, and I know it’s interesting! That’s all it took. I will recreate her narrative here with only minimal interruptions of my interjections and comments.

My first husband was an aerospace engineer, and “Mr. Boeing” sent him to Huntsville, Alabama, where he worked on the rocket that sent us to the moon. It was 1964. Kennedy had been assassinated, but worked progressed on the space program. We lived in South Huntsville. Our kids eventually went to Chaffee Elementary School, White Middle, and Grissom High~~all named after the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 fire at Cape Canaveral in 1967. Of course, that was my first husband. The only things we had in common were our kids–and bridge. We were an unbeatable bridge team! I am very proud that I always spoke well of him to my children. That was very important to me, that they kept a relationship with him. He was a good father. 

League of Women Voters, Feminism, Feminist, Women, Women's Rights, Handmaid's Tale, Alabama, Kay Ivey, Abortion, Alabama Abortion Law, Conservative, Conservative Women, New York Times

I searched for a photo of Jenny, and I believe she is seated just to the left of the column.

In those days, the senior engineers had a choice of moving or not, and most of them chose not to. So there were communities of young families with young children. Before Boeing, before NASA, Huntsville was a cotton town; once we got there, it was a city of 20- and 30-somethings. I had young children, my husband was an engineer, I was college educated. I needed something to do because I couldn’t just stay at home. The League of Women Voters really did keep me sane. My husband didn’t really approve of the amount of time I spent working, but I did it anyway. I was president of the local chapter. In those days I could mimeograph flyers at my house. We met at my house over the years.  

I was in Huntsville the year the President signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We worked hard. One of our projects was a weekly bi-racial lunch, where we went to lunch as a group of Black women and white women–together–to a restaurant. In Alabama in the 1960s that was a radical act. You just didn’t do it. My husband’s job was integrated because it was the federal government, so they hired Black engineers. George Wallace was governor during that time, and it was not easy. 

I used to tell my friends in the West that not everybody in Alabama was racist, that there were people there who worked for civil rights. I tried to bring my children up that way; of course, sometimes the teachers reported that they were being disrespectful. They didn’t say “ma’am.” But they turned out fine. Eventually, more of the women went to work outside the home, so there were fewer of us who could do volunteer work with the League. When my husband was transferred to Washington State, that was the end of my Alabama years. 

By that time, we were finished with our shortcake. I’m keeping you, I said. Yes, I’d just as soon go home now, she replied mater-of-factly, as she asked me to dial her current husband George on my cell phone. George, this is Jenny. You can come and pick me up now in front of the cafeteria. Five minutes, yes. Goodbye. Spoken like a Westerner.

Last month, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the harshest abortion bill in U.S. history. According to the Washington Post, only three women had a voice in the Alabama state senate, where all 25 votes cast in favor of the bill were from white, Republican men. This in a state where although 51% of the population is made up of women, only 15% of the legislature is–one of the worst ratios in the country (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/05/15/typical-male-answer-only-women-had-voice-alabama-senate-men-passed-abortion-ban/?utm_term=.8fd84fe87878).

This morning, an opinion piece from the New York Times popped up in my news feed called Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?
The American family needs defending and right now men are leading the charge. Written by Helen Andrews of the conservative Washington Examiner, a central them was a critique of the “Two Income Trap,” a term coined by Senator Elizabeth Warren in her book by the same name. Andrews opines:

Marriage simply no longer offers the financial security it once did. The consumer goods that singles buy have gotten cheaper, but the things that middle-aged parents spend the most money on — houses, education, health care — have gotten more expensive, while wages have stagnated. It has become difficult for a family with one breadwinner to afford a middle-class standard of living. “Mom’s paycheck has been pumped directly into the basic costs of keeping the children in the middle class,” Ms. Warren’s book “The Two-Income Trap” explained. The mass entry of women into the work force is one reason for this financial insecurity.

Look at that last sentence again. It’s important, as Andrews turns her argument for the emergence of conservative women toward women’s desire for marriageable men. She references the now-viral quote by Fox’s Tucker Carlson: “Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t.” Andrews expounds:

As it happens, there is an abundance of data on Mr. Carlson’s side. Wendy Wang is the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, and before that she worked at the Pew Research Center, where she co-wrote a report about unmarried Americans. “The number of employed men per 100 women dropped from 139 in 1960 to 91 in 2012” among never-married Americans 25 to 34, her report found. “In other words, if all never-married young women in 2012 wanted to find a young employed man who had also never been married, 9 percent of them would fail, simply because there are not enough men in the target group.”

Poor white men. No one wants to marry them. And why not? Because women have taken their jobs!

Here’s another jewel from Andrews, citing an MIT study: When women’s wages went down relative to men’s, marriage and fertility actually went up. I do not have to paint the phallic imagery here, do I?

So, rather than build an economy built on sustainable infrastructures, living wages, affordable health care and child care, paid leave for parents of all genders, tax payer funded college tuition, and jobs in a 21st century world–Alabama leads the rest of the country in this ignoble approach to economics, which, make no doubt about it, it is. Abortion legislation is not about morality or religion or the salvation of Alabama souls. It is political, for it will keep the good Christian people voting Republican–against their own financial and reproductive interests. And this, friends, will keep the Republican coffers full.

Feminism, Feminist, Women, Women's Rights, Handmaid's Tale, Alabama, Kay Ivey, Abortion, Alabama Abortion Law, Conservative, Conservative Women, New York Times

The Alabama bill, along with Andrews’s call for conservative women to take up the call to put women back at home rearing children while their men go off to work, is dangerous. Under the guise of fighting for our “right” to stay home and raise children–and do the majority of domestic labor without pay as part of the contractual obligation to which their marriageable men are entitled–women will be demanding to have our rights revoked. Rights that people like Jenny Nixon worked–from her home, while her children were at school–to make available to us. And, women like Governor Kay Ivey, who have the facade of power, do the bidding of male legislators. If you want to see what the world will look like when this retro-vision is enacted, look no further than the Alabama legislature. Or the list of Fortune 500 CEOs, or the U.S. Senate.

Feminism, Feminist, Women, Women's Rights, Handmaid's Tale, Alabama, Kay Ivey, Abortion, Alabama Abortion Law, Conservative, Conservative Women, New York Times

There’s another place you can look. Watch The Handmaids Tale, Seasons 1 & 2. It was not Commander Waterford who was the architect of Gilead. Rather, it was his wife, Serena Joy, who was the power and talent of the movement. In one chilling scene, which I’ve included below, Serena uses her charismatic speaking talent to turn a group of college student protesters to her conservative vision. Keep watching, though, to see how it turns out for her after she cedes her power. See how she lives in Gilead. The cost of equity and equality is high–we continue to pay it. But there is also a cost to maintain our liberty, and part of that cost is vigilance. Margaret Atwood noted in her book the wages of inattentiveness. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

Have you written your story down, recorded it somewhere, I asked Jenny. No, she said. I thought about it but haven’t. I still remember it, though. I pray that we will all remember, before we boil in a bathtub of our own making.

The Power of a Conservative Woman: Serena Joy Waterford, The Handmaid’s Tale

NYT: Where Are the Conservative Women

‘A typical male answer’: Only 3 women had a voice in Alabama Senate as 25 men passed abortion ban

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Giving Account of Oneself

All my brainiac friends don’t get excited. This ain’t about Judith Butler. 

There is one part of being a professor that I actually don’t mind: the annual review process. I also enjoyed (!) the Tenure & Promotion process a few years ago, which is very similar, just a little bit higher stakes. Am I a glutton for punishment? Do I also enjoy visiting the dentist or gynecologist? No, I think find the review process meaningful because, at least so far, when I have paused to give account of myself professionally, I have come out on the plus side. 

My friend Nichole, also an academic–and one whose good opinion I value and want to keep–helped me start the process this year. She has told me several times that she ought to hang out a shingle for all the counseling she gives me. I don’t argue with her. This time, I was bemoaning my lack of discipline and motivation for writing. “Whitlock,” she said, “what are you talking about? You spent a year interviewing people for your book. And you had an edited collection published this year!” I guess, I told her, I hadn’t thought about those. I tend to focus on the writing that I don’t get done. I wonder if other academics do that. I wonder if other women academics do it. It is a very prohibitive and debilitating habit. 

With that in mind, I approached my annual review, which this year must meticulously be entered into an online system. One good thing about having to enter each tiny part of publication information into separate fields is that you can’t miss what you’ve done! In the hope that I won’t lose sight of it this time and thereby break my nasty habit of null productivity (I made that up just now), here is a list of what I have done this year: 
I was invited to speak at TCU as part of the Green Honors Chair Lecture Series. I was awarded a sabbatical (see previous post). I chaired a dissertation committee and served as external member on two from Georgia Southern. I wrote a book review that I’m now revising, and I have one book chapter in press and one published. I wrote an invited afterword in a special edition of a journal. I was invited by the dean to give a lecture in her speaker series. I gave three conference presentations. I researched for a book. As far as service (the bane of most academics’ existence), I am associate department chair. I served on a department-level tenure and promotion committee and on a college-level one. I taught an online course for the first time (and liked it!). And: I started seminary at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and moved from my apartment into a bungalow in Atlanta. I started back to church and joined the choir. I made new friends and reconnected with old 
ones. 

All in all, this has been one of the best years I’ve ever had. 

On Writing, Part 2: The Sabbatical Begins

A sabbatical is a powerful thing. At my university, they aren’t actually called sabbaticals; They are “Enhanced Faculty Leave.” They are competitive, awarded based on a research proposal. At universities that honor the writing processes of its faculty, sabbaticals are given about once every six or seven years. Sabbaticals, not Enhanced Faculty Leave. Why can’t my university call a sabbatical a sabbatical? Because it would imply to the voting (Republican) public that we lazy, blood-sucking socialist/communist academics were getting something for nothing. That’s about what folks think of academics. Just once I’d like our leadership to take a break from politicking local legislators for additional funds for things like football programs and inform the public that about once every six or seven years, professors need time. Just time. To let the fields lie fallow, which is what has to happen for re-creation, creativity, and good writing to take place. As an act of resistance, I will call my Enhanced Faculty Leave a Sabbatical. 

It takes a while to settle in to a sabbatical–I still haven’t completely done it yet. I keep waiting to have to get up and get ready to go somewhere or do something. What I feel beginning to happen is my mind “un-tensing”–relaxing. I’m mentally starting to sort through how I want to approach my various writing projects. I got out a large yellow pad yesterday–the kind people used to hand write dissertations on years ago. I love those yellow pads; you can tell I’m ready to get down to business when I break out an official pad. While I always have top-notch pens, I’ll write on anything. So yesterday I wrote out a list of every project I want to work on this semester. Here’s the list: 1) two conference papers, 2) an essay for a book about my mentor Bill, 2) a book review that’s a year over due, 3) a review of a manuscript for a publisher, 4) my annual review documents, 5) an essay for a new curriculum studies handbook, 6) a book. Thank God I’m on Enhanced Faculty Leave and not a lazy good for nothing sabbatical.

Putting everything on a list is helpful to me. Now, I have sense enough to know that these can’t all be 6 separate writing projects. The conference papers will have to have some framing in common. The book will mine from what I write in them, etc. This prevents me from having to start with a blank page, which is self-defeating to me. If I can only cut and paste a little, I can go forth steadily. Usually. First, I’m going to do the mindless work of the annual review documents. I’m not being flip about taking them seriously. I do. But, it’s like filling out a job application when you have a good resume in front of you. You just lift from on document and put it on the other. This will be time consuming, but little thinking is involved. Next, I will finish the book review before I lose a good friend, the long suffering journal editor, Alan Block. I’m giving myself a week and a half to get these projects done. The others will need framing up theoretically. And that gets tricky. More on this later. 

You Know You’re a Virgo If…

…when you are doing any other kind of writing (like on a fun blog, for example), you feel guilty that you aren’t doing academic (i.e., real) writing.

The Oldest (Writing) Trick in the World

I would bet money that the “oldest (writing assignment) trick in the world” was invented by a high school boy. The kind that ends up a radio show morning dj who, along with one or two other sidekicks–including a woman who is usually the brunt of the sexual joking–fills the a.m. work traffic airwaves with inside jokes and guffaws. I avoid morning radio shows (Rick and Bubba in the Morning, a favorite of my 21 year-old son, which proves my point) at all costs. But in case your’re wondering, I am not a radical public radio snob either, like some of my egghead friends. I don’t need my head hurting from either end of the spectrum in the morning. I send them some money every now and then, though, just to annoy the Republicans. Anyway, you know the kid I’m talking about. 
 
This kid would invariably appear in my Junior English class, where I taught from 1987-2001, and submit a major essay assignment with entitled, “Writing an Essay for Mrs. Hyde’s (that was me then) Formal Essay Assignment.” He then spent 5 paragraphs (intro, body, conclusion) writing about writing (or lack thereof). It was, at first, a cute trick. I always made sure to tweak directions for subsequent essays to include, “and please do not write an essay about how you stayed up all night attempting to compose an essay and here it is, etc., etc.” That usually worked. Actually, some of those compositions were not so bad, probably because the kid thought it was a good idea, got excited about it, and therefore, wrote it pretty well. 
 
This is not exactly that kind of entry. Only half of writing a blog is to mine fresh ideas and strive to find my own relevance. The other half is to write–to keep a writing exercise journal. That means writing–even sometimes lacking a fresh idea. So, this one may not be too innovative, but I have a thought or two about it. 
 
I’ve been thinking a lot about being relevant. I wrote a grant proposal a few weeks ago. Granted, I came up with a topic from scratch–it wasn’t my lifelong burning passion to be sure. Still, I spent weeks on it, and I know it was well written. I’ve never received external funding for my work (possibly because my work sounds a lot like this) and this was a test case at the very least. I was turned down–and I really thought it stood a chance of getting funding. 
 
A big part of academic life (being a professor, for those who do not regularly refer reverently to “the academy”) is rejection. It’s something most of us at one time or another must deal with. I’ve been doing it for seven years and it isn’t getting easier. Although, I realize even when I didn’t do anything but eat Little Debbie cakes and watch tv at home (dreary, lost years indeed) rejection was still present in different ways and still was not any fun. Academics get rejected in all kinds of ways: by journals, conferences, universities where we apply for jobs, publishing companies. We get rejected by anybody who has the ability to reject us, it seems. Some of us more than others, which is an entry all to itself and is coming, believe me. 
 
The grant proposal rejection sparked an ongoing thought for me lately: relevance. Nobody has actually used that word referring to my work; when people do actually read it, it is usually well-received. More to their surprise than mine. This comes under my being my own toughest critic. Here’s the thing. Writing is what I want to do; I am a professor, for crying out loud, which does more than just imply that I have something to profess. I don’t have any news, or celebrity gossip, and I don’t write about vampires. I don’t have any more of a clue than most other people why some children do better in school than others. For me, professing can be very humbling. Who the hell am I and what the hell do I have to profess? Are my thoughts, am I (for it really is the the same thing, see?) relevant? I think about this a lot, and I’m not finished thinking about it. 
More on this later. 
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