Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why I'm a Feminist and Why You Should Be Too

When I was a kid, I wanted to play with "Star Wars" toys more than dolls, which was considered a disappointment.

Middle school was the first time I realized that the majority of the protagonists of books, movies, and television shows that were my "favorites" were male. They were the ones with interesting story lines, history, conversations, and adventures. Indiana Jones saved the day, the girl was the sex object.

I soon developed a thorough dislike for the James Bond films.

In high school, I was going on a summer trip. The women were told they had to wear one-piece swimsuits, no exceptions. No T-shirts over said swimsuits. No two-pieces that covered midriffs. Why? Because we were expected to be "pure" and "modest" and not tempt men with our bodies because men were "visual creatures." We were going on a trip for a specific reason, unrelated to sexuality. So, in order to expose the hypocrisy of the situation, I suggested men wear T-shirts so women wouldn't ogle men's chests either.

But, apparently, women don't have sexual thoughts. And the cultural standard only requires women to be "modest" in order to protect men. The argument I received was that it's sexual organs that divide men and women to the point that our behaviors fall in one of two categories. Men can't help being stimulated by women in swimsuits, so women would have to do their best to cover up their bodies. It doesn't matter if we had to spend $100 on a one-piece swimsuit that fits (it seems the makers of swimsuits assume women's bodies are only four sizes), or we couldn't go shopping on a whim, or that this was arbitrary. The men leaders said so.

Around the same time, I was told a pregnant teenager could not attend events because she would give the program a "bad image" but the man who impregnated her, hypothetically, could attend events because his body did not reflect the signs of pre-marital sex.

I protested. But I was ignored.

In college, I became more serious about journalism and joined the college newspaper and worked for several professional outlets. This was one of the most positive experiences of my life, but I still experienced incidents that unsettled me.

Once, when I was covering a male-dominated event, several men I interviewed spent more time directing sexual euphemisms in my direction than answering my questions, but I brushed it off. I spoke with several female sports reporters and heard their stories of being excluded — directly or indirectly — from the male-dominated press box. My authority as Editor in Chief of the university newspaper was challenged by a a tiny fraction of male employees. I once wrote a satirical article about the ridiculousness of purity rings and both men and women attacked my sexuality ... because only a sexual delinquent would dislike a symbol that makes women publicly save themselves for men, right?  I didn't really talk about these experiences to anyone because I didn't want it to seem like a big deal.

There's more, but the truth is that I had mostly positive experiences as a journalist. I was considered a good editor, not just a good female editor. Many of my male professors, friends, and fellow reporters encouraged me to become a leader and do my job to the best of my ability.

My junior year at Mississippi State, the Personhood Amendment came into play. I ended up arguing with several people I'm close to over the implications the amendment would cause. The Personhood Amendment, if it had been added to the Mississippi Constitution, would state that "life begins at conception." The consequences this amendment would have are unclear, although it would certainly outlaw abortion and could have possibly affected infertility treatments, birth control, more legal control of pregnant women. Women's healthcare was in jeopardy by this amendment, perhaps why it failed to pass. That's probably the first time I truly identified as a feminist.

I didn't want to be identified with feminism because I didn't want anyone to think I wanted a misandric society. I didn't want anyone to assume I was politically against shaving my legs to make a statement or was a whiner. I was successful at school, my job, and on a path to get into graduate school ... why did I need to make some political statement about the treatment of women?

And, somewhere along the way, I realized that I was focusing on myself and how I appeared to a culture that desperately needed to change. One of my English professors, during our critical theory class, asked why feminism was a dirty word. The answers I remember was that it was "political" and "extreme." Many women and men I know don't want to have an extreme, political agenda of any kind. That was the day I became educated about the different types of feminism. Feminism, at its most basic concept, is simply the desire for equality between men and women.

I took an Irish Women's Post-Colonial Literature course my senior year of college. I realized that feminism is tied into politics, the media, how we interact with one another, religion — pretty much all aspects of our world. After so many years of oscillating between trying to blend into my social world and realizing it needed to change, I finally woke up and decided to take a stand. Feminism wasn't over the moment women got the vote or were able to attend male-dominated schools or entered the workforce. Feminism is still needed today, in the twenty-first century.

Because girls shouldn't have to change their clothes because boys won't change their behavior. Because victims of rape shouldn't be treated as if they don't matter if their rapist is well-known or liked in the community. Because some rape sentences are more lenient than drug penalties. Because religion shouldn't be used to guilt women into being submissive to men. Because sexual harassment in the workplace should be treated seriously. Because men don't automatically have a right to women's bodies. And because there are numerous injustices, fears, and experiences women go through every day. And they won't speak about these instances because of how women are viewed, even by the people closest to them. They don't want to cause "trouble."

When I moved to Durham, I went with my father and sister to an event. I was left alone for about fifteen minutes and received unwanted attention from a male employee. This was the first time I've ever experienced such blatant sexual harassment. And, despite being in a public place with my family on a Sunday afternoon in the daylight, I was scared for the next three weeks.

This man, who was almost double my age and had a son whose age was closer to mine, repeatedly tried to look up my skirt (although, being naive, it took me longer than it should have for me to figure that out). Then he continued to chat me up after I wised up to his game. He pressured me for a number. I tried to give him my father's ... because I thought it was for business purposes. He realized what I was doing and asked for mine. I said no. He asked if I had a boyfriend. I said yes, which was a lie. He pressured me to "just hang out with him anyway." He had me cornered. He used sexual euphemisms I didn't understand (until I looked them up on Urban Dictionary later ... a mistake). He asked questions about where I lived, where I worked, where I was going to school. He revealed increasingly creepy details about his life and dating preferences. I realized, at this point, I was a small woman in a new city where almost no one knew me (and I wasn't close to anyone). He could find me, overpower me, hurt me, and no one would know ... at least until it was too late. He continued to press for my number, for my address. I continued to talk about my "boyfriend." I finally gave him a (fake) number to have him leave me alone.

At this point, my father and sister were approaching, so this man warned me not to tell anyone what he had done, or he'd lose his job. I was scared, I didn't want anyone to lose his job because of me, I didn't want him to find me if he'd lost his job because I reported him. I just wanted him to go away. I didn't say anything to my father. I didn't say anything to anyone. We left.

On the way home, I confessed to (some) of what happened. I realized then, I should have reported him. He could have been harassing other girls and doing more than trying to look up their skirts. I should have, if nothing else, stood up for myself instead being the victim of fear. He didn't find me, he probably figured out I gave him a fake number and lost interest. But I sometimes replay these events in my head because I thought I was capable of being stronger than how I acted. Several girls I knew had been groped without their permission. I told them if it ever happened again to say no, to scream if they had too. To report the incident. To refuse to let their bodies to be used as toys and objects for men's pleasure.

But when I faced this guy that day in August, I couldn't stand up for myself. I couldn't do anything but make up lies to protect myself. This story isn't even the "worst" thing that could have happened to me. But all of the experiences I've listed are a part of a bigger culture ... one that frightens me.

This man didn't treat me like I was a person whose thoughts and feelings were valid. I kept saying "no," he kept pushing to get what he wanted. I started realizing how for the majority of my life, I've been changing my behavior, whether it was wearing longer sleeves or not walking alone at night, so I could protect myself. I noticed how some of male friends didn't seem to understand how not wanting to change my last name if I get married or how not actively desiring marriage and kids are valid decisions are also part of this culture. How the South really, really reinforces gender roles. These stereotypes and expected gender roles hurt both men and women. We're expected to act a certain way, to do certain things or face being labelled as a not woman or man enough. We're dehumanized by a bad system.

Feminism doesn't mean men v. women. Feminism does not blame all men for attacking all women. Feminism doesn't mean becoming an extremist that never marries, refuses to use make up, or reads only gender theory (although never marrying, not using make up, and reading gender theory are perfectly valid choices). Being marked as a feminist shouldn't make men less of a "man" or women pariahs in their society. 

Why should we be feminists? Because if we claim to have a democratic society where everyone is equal or if we claim to be humanists where human agency is valued, then maybe our behavior should mirror those ideals. All of us should treat all genders with the same respect as we treat ourselves. We should strive for a world based on freedom and thought rather than domination and brute strength. We should consider other genders, other cultures, other religions, other nations.

This doesn't necessarily require every person to join in some political demonstration. But promoting discussion is a good place to start. Looking at how we approach topics or how we behave and why gives us understanding. We should strive to be a better humanity.

One of my happiest memories is explaining to a male classmate the waves of feminist theory. He listened, we had a discussion about the implications of what we discussed, and he later told me that although he supported feminist issues, he didn't think about them as deeply or as often until he met me and I made the case of why they were important. Discussion helped both of us see why bringing light to feminist issues matter.

Don't you want your sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, partners, friends, and co-workers to feel safe? Don't you want them to have access to the healthcare they need? Don't you want them to feel respected and loved? Don't you want them to live in a world where they are recognized for their achievements instead of their bodies? Don't you want them to feel free to dress and act without worrying every choice could lead to rape or emotional abuse? Don't you want all people, men and women, to strive for a better world, a world where they are treated fairly?

I do, at least. And that's why I'm a feminist.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Graduate School: The Gift of the Summer

I haven't written anything non-academic in over a year. After I graduated from Mississippi State, I started working on packing and a summer reading list for a Victorian novel class. Once I began my first semester in the English program, I spent the majority of my time reading every book I could find on Daniel Deronda and George Eliot because I became increasingly aware of how little I knew about Victorian literature, major writers and thinkers in the period, and the critical debates in academia. I felt increasingly behind. And then I realized everyone, more or less, hasn't read all of Kant, Foucault, or Dickens either.

I took up pottery as an outlet to help distance myself from journalism, which I cannot do full-time while in graduate school, and to give myself a break from the constant reading and writing. And, after nine months of practice, my pots look like mugs and bowl instead of lumps of hollowed out clay.

But now the summer has begun, and aside from a French for Reading course, I have no obligations. I can read whatever I want and work on whatever I decide. I have no looming academic or professional deadlines in the near future.

I have decided I will not waste my summer. I have goals — to read Victorian novels I have criminally ignored, to explore critical theory that will shape my thinking, to write and explore ideas for conference papers and publications, and to find a project for myself that will put this blog to good use.

Over the years, I've used this blog for many things whether it be media analysis, entertainment reviews, chronicles of conferences and experiences as a student newspaper editor, travel narratives, and on occasion what appears to be a glorified diary entry.

But now I want to focus and mainly look at a larger scope.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

My Last Days as Editor: I'm Done

I've had my last production day. I've had my last day at the office. Tonight, I'll attend my last Reflector banquet. And then, in several weeks, I'll graduate and leave Mississippi State. And several months later, I'll leave Mississippi for the foreseeable future.

I will say this: I believe the 2012-2013's staff put out a very good last edition together. And I'm sure the staff will produce three final issues before we wrap up the school year. And it's weird to think I won't be in that newsroom spending time with them, editing with a stolen pen, and complaining about a lack of graphic elements on a page.

And, although our friendships won't end with a goodbye to the newspaper or a goodbye as we move away, I'll miss seeing the staff every day. Because they are some of my very best friends. They're some of the kindest, most intelligent, empathetic, and generally cool people I've ever met. And they're all pretty talented and hard working too.

The main reason I don't want to grow up: this year.
I have every confidence the new editorial board will be great. And maybe they won't mind if I come back to visit on occasion. But it's not my paper anymore. And all I have left now are the memories (and all of the copies of the newspaper I have saved over the years).

Moving on is hard, but life requires you to move forward. It requires you to be brave and hardworking and strong. I never imagined I would be the editor in chief of my university newspaper. I never thought I would cover half the stories I did. I never thought I would find the family I did when I joined the newspaper staff. But I did.

So thank you to the 2012-2013 editorial board, thank you to the entire staff, thank you to all of the former editors who have supported me — even if you only knew me because I was in a position you held five years before.

Especially thank you to Kyle Wrather, the 2010 editor in chief. He has always been there to when I've needed advice. He has helped me by providing story, design, and photo ideas. When I served as entertainment editor under him, he made me better. And he made me want to make others better.

Thank you to Aubra Whitten, the 2009-2010 managing editor. When I was a freshman, I wanted to grow up to be just like her. She and Kyle both supported the staff through a hard time, and I still remember how she handled the situation. She was the first person to really believe in me as a journalist, and I'll always remember and appreciate that.

April Windham, the 2010-2011 editor in chief, encouraged me to apply for her job. She believed in me and supported my ideas. She also is one of my best friends, and she has listened to me not only rant or freak out about the occasional newspaper problem but has listened to me no matter what the subject. 

Bob Carskadon may have left his position as sports editor in 2011, but we still remember him. Bob did something more important than write great stories (although he did that too) — he educated young writers and inspired them. Two of my editors started writing for him. When I point to sports stories we should aspire to be like, I point to Bob's blog.

And I would like to thank Mary Chase Breedlove, Dr. Carskadon, Dr. McCarley, and Stacey Mann. I was afraid to apply to write for The Reflector, but they encouraged me at various points throughout my first semester. 

I would also like to thank the past and present publication boards. Whit Waide, who served as the chair my first year as editor, was very passionate about the newspaper and Mississippi State. He encouraged me, and I appreciated his advice. Dr. Strout, our current chair, has been a great asset and also teaches a great law class. And Scott Boyd, Harriet Laird, the Student Association members, representatives from The Reveille, and our other members have been helpful and encouraging.

Maridith Geuder, who served as head of university relations until this fall, was a constant source of help to me. She handled crisis situations with aplomb and always had time for me — even when I was just visiting.

The Student Association members whom I've worked with, most notably Shelby Balius, Rhett Hobart, Thomas Sellers, and Morgan McDowell, have been helpful to the newspaper in our collective effort to serve the students.

I would also like to thank Dr. Anderson, Dr. Marsh, Dr. Creevy, Dr. Claggett, and Dr. Snyder — without your English and humanities class, I would have never gotten into grad school and because of them, I have learned to think more critically. English has made me a better journalist.

And to the entire English and Communication Departments: Thank you. And to the Shackouls Honors College: Thank you for giving me so many good writers.

Thank you to Mississippi State's faculty, administration, and staff.  And thank you to the MSU and Starkville police departments. I appreciate your service and your willingness to work with The Reflector.

And thank you to my friends and family who either encouraged me or helped me. You're the best.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me and The Reflector this year and in previous years. You made the newspaper worth reading.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

My Last Days as Editor: I'm Sitting At My Desk ...

I'm almost out of time.

That's not to say that my life will end at 22, as I walk out the door of The Reflector office on Friday after I turn in my keys. Or after I give my speech (that I still haven't written yet) at the banquet Saturday.

But, when I first took over editor in chief in 2011, I felt like I had so much time to do so many things and conquer the journalism world. And I've accomplished a lot of goals and faced down more lawsuit threats than any one person should. 

I covered the first on campus shooting in Mississippi State's history. I followed the story of a kidnapping hoax on my 21st birthday. I wrote about Greek stereotypes and student apathy toward the Student Association. I wrote a feature article on the beloved Starkville business, Strangebrew, and had great fun doing it. I even sat in the press box at Davis Wade. And those are only a few of my memories writing for The Reflector.

 Last year, I helped defend our right and decision to publish a sex column. (I cannot tell you how many tweets/emails/horrified phone calls I got from this.) I also discovered that some people will be more offended by a typo in the sports section than said sex column. 

I debated ethical concerns over articles using anonymous sources with our adviser and staff members. 

I survived planning one banquet last year, and hopefully I'll survive planning this one as well.

Somehow, as a freshman, I was hired to be entertainment editor. I wrote and planned stories and learned how much I hated reading fashion columns without legitimate sources. And I got to write a sports story (technically, it was a face-off about what was more important: the actual Super Bowl game or the half-time show and commercials). But, eventually, I wrote legitimate sports stories.

I even learned how to understand a football game. 

I've traveled to Louisville, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Martin, Tenn. 

And admist all of the work and stress and fun, I've made friends. Some of my best friends have come from the four staffs on which I've served, especially the 2012-2013 editorial board. We've made memories together, and they've supported me throughout good times and bad. 

But now, I only have three normal work days left with them. And soon, we'll be saying goodbye and life will change. I'm happy it happened, it's time to move on, and the end of the newspaper is not the end of my friendships. And, these people are some of the most important people in my life.

They've taught me how to be a better person, how to be a better teacher, how to be a better writer, how to be a better editor, and so much more. 

I'm finishing my last new article now. (At least, the last one I'm obligated to write.) And I'm sitting at my desk on last Wednesday. And tonight I'll run my last meeting.

But just as it's ending for me, it's beginning for so many new editors and writers. Someone else will come in and experience the joy I have had and will write stories worth telling about. Because The Reflector is a special place full of opportunity and wonder where anyone with potential can develop. And it'll be better than when I left it. And I'll be proud to have been part of something so wonderful. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

My Last Days as Editor: Part Two

For the past three years, I've experienced three official Reflector staff transitions. As part of training for the next year, the new editor-in-chief hires his or her new staff at the end of March, and the current staff trains its successors for a few papers. Traditionally, the staff for the next year takes over the last three or four papers of the spring semester.

On these occasions about twenty people cram into our small office as staffs attempt to pass on knowledge, ask the right questions, and feverishly work to master InDesign and editing before the members of the old staff leave forever.

And, at times when tensions run high and it appears as if the next issue of the newspaper may not happen, I sometimes think I understand what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said hell is other people. Then, about five minutes later, the server returns or rainbow wheel of death stops spinning and we go back to having fun.

I've trained other people to do my previous jobs before as a section editor, but I knew I was always returning. If I forgot to tell the news desk about when Student Association Senate meetings were, it wasn't a big deal because I was there. If someone had an ethics question about anonymous sourcing, I could share my knowledge. And if sports writers tried to use worst cliche in the book (heartbreaking), I could mark it out with red ink. 

But this time, I only have four issues left to teach the new editors (and maybe the old editors) all they need to know to make this transition as easy as possible for them. The two transition production days have past; I have two more. Two more chances to make sure I did all I could for The Reflector.

I have learned more from being an editor than I would have thought possible. Practicalities from "If someone threatens legal action against you, stop the conversation" to life lessons about leadership and time management. Most importantly, however, I've learned that writing popular articles, winning awards, and having dynamic photos mean nothing if you've failed to educate those helping you produce the content.

Inherently, The Reflector acts as an educational tool for young journalists/photographers/editors (and, although not many people remember, advertising representatives). We hold ourselves to the same standards an ethical, professional newspaper would. When breaking news happens, we're expected to be there. When important events effect the university and Starkville communities, we need to cover them. And when the Student Association's senate meets, we should be the first students to attend and write a story. We're the watchdogs of our community, we're the information source (and the in class distraction for those who love the crossword puzzle).

As the leader of this newspaper, I've been given a great opportunity to gain experiences I never thought I would have. But, next Thursday night, I'll finish my final production day and walk out of my office's doors after sending one last paper. And The Reflector won't be under my control anymore, and I'll have to let go and hope I taught someone something worth knowing.

Here's the lesson all leaders in student journalism should learn: News changes rapidly. Your bylines will fade away, no matter how cool your stories are. (And if seeing your name in the paper is why you're doing this, you should get out now.) But if the education you give to others, if it's good, won't go away. Write something that matters and do it for the pure love of the greater good through the distribution of information. But, more importantly, encourage your staff to write something that matters and give them the tools to do it.

And I know this because I had great senior editors my freshman year who helped shape me into a better writer, editor, and journalist (yes, those are all different things). So thank you to the 2010 Reflector staff. You taught me to be better and do better and inspired me to try the hardest I can to make things better. And I hope I succeeded. The former editors of The Reflector are not only my friends but my heroes. They've inspired me to achieve excellence in all I do.

And I hope I've made them proud, and I hope I've done even a sixth as good of a job as they did. And I hope the editors that come after me take everything I did wrong (and there's plenty of that) and learn from it and improve the newspaper far beyond what we can currently imagine. Because what we do — informing people, telling the truth, giving a voice to the voiceless — is something worth believing in and sacrificing for. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

My Last Days as Editor of The Reflector: Part One

I've spent the past four years in a college newsroom. I've spent the last two serving as editor-in-chief of The Reflector. From this summer onward, I keep having the best time of my life — you know, that mythical experience promised to you as you enter college.

For the past few years, I've always known what I was going to do the next year. I've always had a plan, and that plan hinged on my ideas and goals for The Reflector. I've been happy being a part of the editorial board, and I've learned. And maybe I've taught someone something worth knowing.

Last week, Kaitlyn Byrne was chosen as my successor as editor-in-chief. Yesterday, she announced her new staff. I'm so proud of her and my staff members who have gained new positions. Congratulations to all of them, and they will do a fantastic job next year.

Yesterday, many staff members attended the Better Newspaper Contest Awards Ceremony at the O.C. McDavid Conference.  We learned a lot, had fun taking one last trip together, and picked up an insane amount of awards. 

The two awards I'm most personally proud of receiving: First place in General Excellence (we're all winners) and first place in spot news coverage for our work on the on-campus shooting last March.
Ms. McDavid, Julia, Farrah, Zack, Mary Chase, John, Emma, Me, Eric, and Kaitlin.
See? The plaque is reflecting the light ... get it?

I was so excited. Seriously.

Earlier this year, I missed SEJC because of a scheduling conflict. But, thankfully, I was able to attend one last trip with my friends. Awards aren't important. They are not the reason we write, take photographs, edit, or design. We do it because we want to serve our community. But awards do reflect that we are doing jobs well, so on occasion, it's nice to receive validation.

Tuesday was our last paper before the transition period between new and old staffs. On Sunday (yes, we work on Easter — I've actually worked on Easter for the past four years), we will welcome next year's editorial board members to the office officially. And, hopefully, I can give them a couple of lectures on the importance of ethics, Dickens, accurate reporting, professionalism, Dickens, editing, design, teaching, and Dickens before I leave.

I know I will miss the newspaper next year. But, for the moment, it's time to celebrate our time together and work to pass on four years of editing knowledge.

Again, I'm so proud of everyone on staff (editors, writers, photographers, advertising reps) this year. You deserve all of the praise. I could not have produced a single edition without you.

Scotland: Or, How I Found the Tardis

The bus ride was one of the worst experiences of my life. The less said about said bus ride, the better. Because we didn't book a hostel before leaving for Edinburgh, Josh and I went on a search for wi-fi in order to do so. So with little to no sleep, we pulled our bags across the (very hilly) city.

Someone wanted to stop at McDonald's. It wasn't me. But the point is, we eventually found a hostel, took a nap, and start having adventures.

I have tried to find the words to describe Scotland because it was the best trip of my life. Least importantly, I received a much needed break from work and school after three years of non-stop writing and research. But I also met my best friend on this trip. And I got to prank so many people with random phone calls that started a conversation with, "Hey, by the way, I ran away with a boy to Scotland. I'll see you in a few weeks."

This is a Hairy Coo. It's the only cow I've ever loved. I made Josh take a photo of me with it.
I saw the Isle of Skye. I claim that I could have potentially seen the Loch Ness Monster. And I found the sense of purpose I needed to decide that I did want to apply to grad school to study Victorian Literature. Oh, and I found a cow I actually liked.

I also saw blue police boxes across Edinburgh, so you know that The Doctor is having adventures.

Being away from home made me value it even more when I returned. And I know one day I'll return and make some new adventures.

After Josh and I spent almost a week in Scotland, we returned to London because someone washed his passport. (Hint: It wasn't me.) And I got to see "Wicked" again. And visit the Tower of London and St. Paul's Cathedral.

I'm thankful for being able to study abroad and travel, and the Mississippi State Study Abroad Office, the Honors College, and my family are responsible for a why I could go. I appreciate the opportunity I was given, and I hope others who go to Oxford after me will have similar experiences.