Dispatch #50 January 26th 2019
Day 811 Post-Ascendency of White Supremacy & Misogyny
Day 736 Post-Installation of White-Supremacist-Misogynist-Pussy-Grabbing-Self-Aggrandizing-Demagogic-Bully-Illegitimate-PeeeOTUS & his White-Nationalist-Fascistic-Christian-Supremacist-Quislings
Toward the end of her powerfully elegaic new book, These Truths A History of the United States (2018 WW Norton & Co), Jill Lepore describes how the Republic Party in 1980 abandoned its decades of support for women’s rights. When asked about his reversal of previous support for the ERA and for family planning/abortion as he became Reagan’s running mate in 1980, George H W Bush waved the question aside saying “I’m not going to get nickel-and-dimed to death with detail.”
Yeah…uh-huh…weaponizing control over women’s bodies is just a detail in the battle for power in the White Supremacist Patriarchy. We women are less than human, part of the flora and fauna, important sources of sustenance both physical and emotional, producers of the next generations. We are seen as bystanders and never participants in making history and telling history.
What kind of history is written when a woman is the storyteller? Sarah Smarsh has written a powerful memoir titled HEARTLAND A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (Scribner 2018). In her review titled “She Grew Up Poor on a Kansas Farm. Her Memoir Is an Attempt to Understand Why.” published in The New York Times, Francesca Mari offers this assessment:
Smarsh escaped poverty, she believes, because, unlike her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she didn’t become a teenage mom. In part, she says, this was because she was among the first generation of her family to have at least one constant home, dating to when her maternal grandmother, Betty, married her seventh husband, Arnie. (By contrast, Smarsh’s mom, Jeannie, moved 48 times before starting high school.) Such is the reality of poverty. The memoir flickers to life at that home, a humble farmhouse on 160 acres of wheat fields outside Wichita.
With an abundance of land and an under-abundance of cash, Arnie gleefully invents new forms of entertainment. One weekend he loads family and their sloshing solo cups into a tattered canoe, hitches it to his truck and rips through the snowy fields. Through the stories of Smarsh’s witty but withholding mother, her tender but luckless father, her generous step-grandfather and hazardously vivacious grandmother, Smarsh shows how the poor seldom have the vantage to identify the systemic forces suppressing them. Rather, they make do.
From the farm, the book circumambulates several major themes: body, land, shame. Smarsh describes the toll of labor on those who have no choice but to do it — a work force priced out of health insurance by its privatization. Neighbors are maimed by combines and the author’s father nearly dies from chemical poisoning a week into a job transporting used cleaning solvent. Women absorb their husbands’ frustrations, blow by blow. Meanwhile, big agribusinesses strangle the region’s family farms, leaving behind a brackish residue of shame — the shame of being poor and white.
“Poor whiteness,” Smarsh writes, “is a peculiar offense in that society imbues whiteness with power — not just by making it the racial norm next to which the rest are ‘others’ but by using it as a shorthand for economic stability.”
Smarsh is an invaluable guide to flyover country, worth 20 abstract-noun-espousing op-ed columnists. She was raised by those who voted against their own interests. “People on welfare were presumed ‘lazy,’ and for us there was no more hurtful word,” she writes. “Within that framework, financially comfortable liberals may rest assured that their fortunes result from personal merit while generously insisting they be taxed to help the ‘needy.’ Impoverished people, then, must do one of two things: Concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them.”
A deeply humane memoir with crackles of clarifying insight, “Heartland” is one of a growing number of important works — including Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” and Amy Goldstein’s “Janesville” — that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America’s postindustrial decline. Or, perhaps, simply: class. It’s a term that Smarsh argues wasn’t mentioned during her childhood in the 1980s and ’90s. “This lack of acknowledgment at once invalidated what we were experiencing and shamed us if we tried to express it.” www.nytimes.com/2018/09/10/books/review/sarah-smarsh-heartland.html
In 2016 JD Vance’s publishing debut, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper), was lauded by both sides of the political divide as presenting a compassionate but tough love assessment of poor white people. In her review of this book titled “In ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump,” Jennifer Senior notes that Vance, while acknowledging the impact of economic insecurity, believes the hillbilly culture that promotes an expectation of insurmountable adversity also promotes resentment and a belief that working hard will not ever improve one’s lot. Vance, a conservative, holds his hillbilly kin largely responsible for their misfortunes. www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/books/review-in-hillbilly-elegy-a-compassionate-analysis-of-the-poor-who-love-trump.html
The distance in perspective between Vance and Smarsh is measured by their gender. Yeah, getting pregnant while being poor makes it just about impossible to “pull yourself up.” How a woman experiences, describes, and understands the impact of poverty and class provides a critical corrective to Vance’s inclination to prescribe personal responsibility as the appropriate approach for overcoming structural inequities. Notwithstanding his self-proclaimed hillbilly culture heritage, Vance’s status as a straight white male provides a certain advantage in responding to the “pull yourself up” exhortation. Conservatives predictably praised the book while liberal and mainstream commentary spoke of important insights into the (white male) working class experience.
That women have always been warriors for social justice and community good, and not just for the advancement of the individual, is a history untold and unheralded in America. A just published book by Jessica Wilkerson titled To Live Here, You Have To Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (2019 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois) examines the social justice brand of feminism that animated Appalachian women in the 1970s. An excerpt titled “The Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization and the Lost Promises of Feminism” provides an overview:
“One woman alone can’t do anything,” activist Eula Hall declared at the inaugural meeting of the Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization. The group had met for the first time at the Mud Creek Clinic in Floyd County, in February 1975….To several of the supporters in attendance, a women’s movement made complete sense given the history of women’s activism in Appalachia. They reminded each other that women in the Mountain South had often been the strongest, most dependable fighters in times of crisis, and the women’s rights meeting marked a moment to consider what women as a group needed to thrive….women were “the most powerful” at “rallies, picketing, and everything else.” During her eight years of community work, declared Sue Fields, a community organizer in southwest Virginia, “It was the women that got things done.” For the past decade, Appalachian women had led numerous social justice efforts, from welfare rights campaigns and women’s self-care meetings to civil disobedience actions to draw attention to poor conditions in the coalfields. The new organization would build on that energy but bring a new gender-consciousness to their analysis of power in the coalfields.
The AWRO members identified two areas that they believed most important to organizing for women’s rights: gender violence and economic hardship. Too many women simply did not have access to decent, well-paying jobs, and the employment most often available to them—so-called “unskilled” labor—paid too little to support a family. With the tightening of social welfare programs, many women in Appalachia saw few routes to economic stability. Those economic concerns entangled with gender violence in the home….the intersection between poverty, a failing economy, and domestic violence could lead to tragic outcomes. “The job situation in Appalachia is bad. Men get disabled young. Tension builds up at home. Beating begins on the wife and often children . . . the whole thing comes down on the women.”
The Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization was a part of a surge of welfare rights activists and their allies who sought to influence emerging feminist policies, especially as related to welfare, work programs, and economic security…..Appalachian feminists took a holistic view, arguing for structural changes that would manifest in support of working-class communities. No single approach could solve their problems. They wanted access to well-paying, union jobs, but they also called for robust state support for those who cared for children and other dependent family members
In this way, they looked more like the “social justice feminists” who were active between the 1930s and 1960s than they did second-wave feminists. As stated by Mary Anderson, appointed the first director of the Women’s Bureau in the 1920s, a feminism that focused on “doctrinaire equality” without “social justice” would fail to improve the majority of working women’s lives. Anderson and others like her were opposed to “equal rights feminism,” which focused on equality between women and men but failed to address the ways that race and class also structured women’s lives. Their conceptions of feminism promoted an expansive social safety net, a robust labor movement, and the valuing of women’s labor in the market and the home. Moreover, like the social justice feminists before them, feminists in Appalachia built on the ideological frameworks of antipoverty, labor, and civil rights movements.
Not surprisingly, the AWRO calls for structural change and redistribution of economic power as well as demands that feminists grapple with intersections of gender and class were sidelined by a narrow focus on improved employment opportunities for women and efforts to address domestic violence.
The AWRO and feminists in Appalachia ultimately turned their attention to the one area of feminist policy where they might make economic gains: access to higher paying jobs in male-dominated industry. They began mobilizing for an end to employment discrimination, especially in the coal mines. Over the next several years, they realized success in legal challenges and in breaking down barriers in workplaces. In making this shift they muted their previous indictments of the mining industry, as well as their commitments to a guaranteed income and rights for caregivers. A woman donning coalminer’s garb became the new, iconic image of the Appalachian feminist. https://pictorial.jezebel.com/the-appalachian-women-s-rights-organization-and-the-los-1831992914
In her 1989 Yale Journal of Feminism and Law article, titled Hard Labor: Voices of Women from the Appalachian Coalfields, Marat Moore recounts and salutes the history of these women coal miners:
Like their foremothers, women miners in the 1970’s were motivated almost solely by financial need. But Appalachian women entered the mines with a determination and resilience that reflected generations of social and economic struggle. Coal miners had battled for union recognition in the early twentieth century, and their wives often entered as full partners into that desperate struggle. When their daughters and granddaughters crossed the mine portal, they were bolstered by those survival skills. Yale Journal of Law & Feminism: Vol. 2 : Iss. 2 Article 2.