Baby boomers. The phrase summons forth faded images of Woodstock or more recent reports of a horde of incipient retirees putting stress on a fragile Medicare system.
But there is another, more recent, set of “boomers” out there. And they’re making earth-shaking headlines today. They are young people in places like Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
A huge generation is coming of age as a result of high fertility rates in Arab nations and elsewhere. Indeed, in Egypt, 61 percent of the population is under the age of 30. In Yemen, almost half the population is under 15.
Their youthful impatience with oppression and a lack of jobs is toppling regimes that, just a month ago, seemed permanent. Their anger was fed by a sharp spike in food prices; each year the world has 80 million new mouths to feed.
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No tears need be shed over the departure of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia. And the popular uprising against Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi is long overdue. Yet it’s far from certain where all of this will end up. Popular uprisings can lead to a new era of freedom, like in the Czech Republic. Or they can give rise to new forms of oppression, like in Iran.
The largest generation of young people the world has ever seen is now on the world stage. And it’s happening at the same time that new forms of instant communication can circumvent controls long imposed by tyrants.
In recent weeks, circumstances on the ground in many Arab states have been murky. Change has taken place at the speed of a tornado. To weather these storms and to encourage a sustainable balance of freedom and prosperity, it’s essential to take the long view. President Obama has demonstrated commendable restraint in the midst of chaos along with an unswerving commitment to keeping the United States engaged in the global effort to improve lives and end poverty.
That’s not easy. Not when the United States faces huge budget deficits and the rise of a new breed of inordinately impatient politicians.
Foreign assistance, alone among government programs, fails to enjoy majority support.
It’s an easy target in tough times – especially when misinformation rules the roost. According to a November poll, the average American believes that 27 percent of the federal budget goes for foreign aid. In fact, it’s less than one percent.
The rapidly changing world situation makes clear that, despite the seeming ease of targeting foreign assistance, this is no time for the United States to head for the sidelines.
People all over the world are demanding better futures. Family planning is critical to achieving that future. When women have the ability to freely choose whether and when to have children they, their families, their communities and their countries are healthier.
For more than 40 years, the United States has led the world in the provision of assistance for family planning. These voluntary programs have helped reduce family size and population pressures in such far-flung places and Mexico and Bangladesh.
The U.S. House recently voted to end all support to the United Nations Population Fund, the world’s largest multilateral agency dedicated to ensuring that all women have access to safe, effective contraceptives. At the same time, the House slashed all international family planning aid by some 30 percent, which could cause more millions of women to lose access to birth control and basic health services. Under Speaker Boehner’s leadership, the House majority reimposed the Bush-era Global Gag Rule that prevents family planning funds from going to some of the world’s most effective providers. Hopefully, wiser heads in the Senate will prevail.
The actions taken by the House are misguided and counterproductive. As our representatives debate balancing the budget, it’s vital to remember that the world’s fate, including our own, requires striking the right balance.
In We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler argues that a 2014 Beyoncé performance signaled feminism's "arrival" as a mainstream movement. But, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market has not trickled down.
Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Emma Watson are feminists. So is Miss Piggy from the Muppets. Chanel’s 2014 runway show flaunted feminist imagery, and even Katy Perry’s signature perfume is feminist.
Something has happened to feminism.
“It was hot,” Andi Zeisler writes in the introduction to her new book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “And, perhaps most important, it was sellable.”
It’s the moment Zeisler, one of the founders of Bitch magazine, has been fighting for for 20 years: the tipping point. Feminism has arrived.
“I always believed that the realm of media and popular culture was where feminism would truly change hearts and minds,” Zeisler writes. “Theoretically, this was exactly the breakthrough my cofounders and I had always hoped to see.”
But as you may have guessed from the subtitle, there’s a catch. Like the wealth promised by President Ronald Reagan, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market has not trickled down.
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As we celebrate the increasing number of female TV showrunners and writers, Senate Republicans have twice unanimously voted against an act designed to close the gendered wage gap. As our tabloid magazines documented every blessed step of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, an anti-discrimination ballot measure in Houston, Texas was defeated thanks largely to TV ads that painted transgender women as child predators, warning, “Any man at any time could enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman.” As we excitedly binge-watch a Netflix series about life and love in a women’s prison, dozens of black women have died in police custody in recent years, with no satisfactory explanation as to why.
In this deeply researched account, Zeisler charts the co-optation of feminism and women’s empowerment over the decades, and shows how this process reached a peak in 2014. In 1929, Lucky Strikes cigarettes were cast as “torches of freedom,” a co-optation echoed in perhaps my favorite of Zeisler’s examples: the 1970 billing of the Liberated Wool Sweater as the “embodiment of the new freedom.” In 1998, First USA offered a Mastercard celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention. But while corporations and popular culture have always tried to sell their ideas of what women want, Zeisler identifies 2014 as The Year It Happened.
It was Beyoncé. On stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé sampled Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and posed in front of the bright, white, glowing word: “FEMINIST.” In a 2014 Bitchpost after Beyoncé’s performance that presaged some of the ideas in her new book, Zeisler wrote that the performance “positioned feminism as Beyoncé’s official brand.” While its impact was undeniable, Zeisler wrote that “the branding of feminism as an attractive product for consumption is very different than the work of feminism as a progressive movement.”
To be clear, Zeisler’s book doesn’t diss Beyoncé; it draws a distinction between what she calls “marketplace feminism”—the “mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism,” which is often about selling us something—and the less visible work feminists (including Beyoncé) do every day to advance gender justice. In fact, the best part about Zeisler’s writing on pop culture is that she doesn’t hate it; she’s a connoisseur, which makes her the most entertaining, well-informed of critics.
She applies an almost encyclopedic knowledge of film, television, music, and advertising to reveal the funhouse-mirrorlike results of mainstream culture’s co-optation of radical ideas. Take what pop culture did to the punk movement Riot Grrrl, with its out-of-bounds, anti-capitalist, “girls to the front!” ethos: “The phrase ‘Girl Power’ was harvested from Riot Grrrl zines and re-emerged, a marketplace-feminist Frankenstein’s monster, in the juggernaut of the Spice Girls.” And what happens when even consumer products like underwear can become feminist? An “uncanny valley,” filled with objects that kind of look feminist: “In the uncanny valley, those granny panties are feminist because they say so on the butt.”
In one of the book’s strongest sections, Zeisler unpacks how even feminist ideas like choice and empowerment have been co-opted to sell damaging mythologies, like poverty as an individual, not a societal failing, or the notion that women make choices about work and family in a vacuum. Zeisler writes that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, “shifted the language of bodily rights from demands to choices.” After that, “the advent of neoliberalism did the rest, normalizing the self-focus and singularity made ever more possible by a booming free market. The parlance of the marketplace became the default way to talk about almost all choices made by women.”
So what happens when neoliberalism—with its ethos of privatization, deregulation, and individualism—co-opts feminism? You end up with figureheads like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose “lean-in” feminism masks the failings of capitalism by implying that women who fail to break through systemic barriers simply aren’t leaning hard enough. As Zeisler notes, the neoliberal approach to feminism obscures racism, classism, and other barriers that “make grabbing status-quo balls almost impossible for anyone other than the people who are already in closest proximity to them.”
By tackling the false promises of “marketplace feminism,” Zeisler has provided a much-needed counterpoint to Sandberg’s classist vision. Her critique of this exclusive iteration of feminism—and its cozy ties to the corporate powers that be—reaches its peak during her description of the 2014 MAKERS Conference, a corporate-sponsored, invitation-only event attended by Sandberg, Martha Stewart, actress Geena Davis, and more, or what Zeisler sums up as a gathering of “very elite women patting other very elite women on the back for their individual achievements in highly rarefied fields.”
What Zeisler calls “marketplace feminism” could, at times, have simply been called “capitalist feminism” or maybe just capitalism. Its co-optation of social movements is hardly new or unique to feminism. But in an email to Rewire, Zeisler said she coined “marketplace feminism” as a more specific term, “because of the way it invokes picking and choosing, taking on the parts of an ideology or practice that appeal to you and ignoring those that don’t.” In co-opting feminism, pop culture and the market have taken the sellable and left the “thorny, unsexy realities” behind.
Still, Zeisler misses an opportunity to fully articulate an alternative to “marketplace feminism,” perhaps one that encompasses its logical counterpoint: socialism, another idea that’s arguably having its Beyoncé moment right now. For many on the Left, watching Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticize capitalism on a national debate stage has been akin—and bear with me here—to what happened at the VMAs in 2014, albeit … well, not nearly as … hot. The number of young women identifying with socialist principles suggests many potential readers would appreciate an explicit discussion of alternatives to capitalist feminism—beyond equal pay, what about basic income?—but Zeisler largely avoids this conversation, instead alluding more broadly to the need for a “post-marketplace-feminism world.”
In the end, the book’s greatest weakness is that it sidelines today’s grassroots feminist and intersectional social movements, many of which oppose capitalism. While she acknowledges organizations like Know Your IX and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Zeisler’s only explicit mention of Black Lives Matter is to cite the hashtag as a branded entity, lumped in with “Barack Obama’s presidential campaign” and “one-for-one TOMS shoes.” (“By a branded entity, I don’t mean that #BLM is actively selling a product,” Zeisler wrote, when I asked her about this in an email, “but that it has leaders and language and imagery that are associated with it, and the words have become shorthand for something that people feel deeply invested in.”) Yet, it feels like an oversight of one of this generation’s most defining social movements. #BlackLivesMatter caught fire like a brand, but it was created by women of color, not by tobacco or shoe companies. It’s a surprising blind spot for a book that reckons with how “marketplace feminism” can obscure racial and economic injustice.
Zeisler ultimately falls into her own trap, focusing too much on the very things on which, she suggests, we are too focused. In critiquing the fixation on celebrity spokespeople, she writes: “It’s as though feminists are becoming part of a celebrity movement, rather than celebrities joining up with a feminist one.” But the opposite is true: Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, and Miley Cyrus are responding to a movement that has pushed some feminist ideas into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean feminism has been bought. Beyond the rarefied MAKERS Conference, feminists are protesting on behalf of women killed by police and against anti-transgender legislation. The feminists I know watch Beyoncé’s “Formation” video on repeat, but they don’t think the battle’s over because Beyoncé tipped her hat.
I learned a lot from Zeisler’s witty, well-informed prose, and it was refreshing to read a feminist book so openly critical of capitalism. But in the end, I just can’t buy the idea that feminism has been sold. Maybe it’s because I was there on March 2, as thousands of feminists gathered outside the Supreme Court while it heard the most significant abortion case in a generation. People who had had abortions told their stories, on their own terms, and so did abortion providers. That was feminism—not defined by Sheryl Sandberg or even by Beyoncé.
Medical students’ limited opportunities to train in abortion procedures are a major barrier to care. But as bad as the situation is in the United States for medical students, it’s actually much worse in many international settings—including our own home countries.
Medical students’ limited opportunities to train in abortion procedures are a major barrier to care in the United States.Many schools intentionally choose not to include abortion in the curriculum or only offer “opt-in” training. A national survey of medical schools in 2005 found that only 32 percent offered at least one abortion-related lecture during students’ third-year OB-GYN rotation, and only half of schools offered a fourth-year reproductive health elective that covered family planning and abortion.
Such restricted opportunities for abortion training are, of course, a result of institutionalized stigma, often forcing interested medical students to go above and beyond their school’s curriculum to learn abortion care clinical skills and reinforcing the shame surrounding this simple and common medical procedure.
But as bad as the situation is in the United States for medical students, it’s actually much worse in many international settings—including our own home countries. Michalina is in medical school in Poland, where abortion is not typically included in any OB-GYN class curricula. In fact, Poland’s government attempted to pass a total abortion ban just last year. Polish health-care providers who do manage to obtain training and offer safe abortions do so with great discretion; they risk being ostracized socially and professionally. And in Nicaragua, where Cecilia lived and worked until moving to the United States four years ago, a complete ban on abortion means medical schools offer zero training in this often lifesaving care.
Thanks to these kinds of policies, we have found that many medical students—from all parts of the globe—are in the dark about the fact that the procedure, when done safely and legally, has minimal risk of complications. Medical students without abortion training or knowledge go on to become doctors who cannot and will not perform the procedure, even in countries where it’s legal. Having internalized the stigma around abortion themselves, these doctors may refuse mid-career training on the procedure even if their community has a clear need for the service, and they may judge, scorn and turn away patients who seek safe abortions at health clinics—in turn giving people no other option than to seek unsafe, clandestine procedures.
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That’s why the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA), one of the world’s oldest and largest student-run organizations,has partnered with Ipas, a global NGO dedicated to ending deaths and injuries from unsafe abortion, to develop a training for future health professionals on the importance of safe abortion access.
Our work together began in 2010 with a collaboration between Ipas Nigeria and the Nigerian Medical Students’ Association, which then evolved into a global-level partnership. IFMSA engages a network of more than one million medical students from 115 countries, and a total of approximately 4,000 students attend annual regional meetings held around the globe. To capitalize on the organization’s vast reach, together we created a training guide thatIFMSA student leaders use at their regional meetings to offer a crash course on the public health issue of unsafe abortion and how health-care providers can be advocates for abortion access—regardless of whether they ever provide the service or where they work in the health system. Trainings began in 2013 at a regional meeting in Ethiopia, and Michalina, as a leader with IFMSA’s committee on sexual and reproductive health issues, has now helped facilitate six of these trainings in various regions.
Rather than offer clinical abortion skills training, we recognized that what many medical students need first is an opportunity to talk openly about the myths, misconceptions, and biases about abortion they’ve inherited from their respective cultures. Training participants explore how unsafe abortion affects women and societies and how practicing health professionals can reduce the many barriers to abortion care that patients face. A section of the training also demystifies clinical aspects of abortion care with an overview of safe procedure methods and the importance of patient-centered care. Finally, students learn strategies for advancing abortion rights and access, and practice skills like advocacy and peer education.
You can’t expect a roomful of strangers to instantly feel comfortable discussing such a stigmatized topic, so our training involves many participatory activities that allow students to clarify their own values and beliefs related to abortion and to challenge themselves by considering a variety of others’ perspectives—including those of fellow training participants, as well as people seeking abortions, their families, and the health professionals who provide them. One popular activity asks students to brainstorm all the many reasons why a person may want or need an abortion and then to discuss which reasons society deems more acceptable. The activity sparks conversations about differing cultural beliefs and the subconscious biases we all carry.
The “ah-ha!” moments that occur at these trainings are pretty remarkable. Students from the United States, carrying the burden of their country’s uniquely toxic political climate around abortion, are frequently shocked to discover the wide array of other students’ experiences. For example, students from Western Europe will note that immigrants in their countries struggle to access safe abortions due to factors like immigration status, language barriers, and lack of information, even though the procedure is legal and not highly stigmatized. Meanwhile students from some African nations all know of at least one woman whose life was claimed by unsafe, clandestine abortion—often obtained illegally.
Students are also regularly surprised to learn about the abortion laws in their own countries. Many simply assume tight legal restrictions on the procedure because of the way medical schools and health systems avoid the topic as if it’s forbidden. A group of students from Tunisia, for example, were shockedto learn in early 2015 that their country’s abortion law is quite progressive—and outraged that they had been uninformed. After participating in our training, they started a project to educate other Tunisian medical students about the abortion law and other policies that advance reproductive health and rights.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of these trainings—and we’ve seen it again and again—is when students begin our workshop staunchly opposed to abortion and leave committed to abortion rights advocacy and excited to educate their peers at home on the topic. We’ve been careful not to impose aparticular view on abortionin the exercises that comprise our training, and we hear routinely from students that they didn’t feel pushed to adopt a particular outlook. Rather, they feel grateful for the opportunity to have open, honest dialogue—often for the first time. This dialogue, they say, allows them to dispel myths and better understand what their role might be in supporting access to safe, legal abortion in the future.
The first step to ending abortion stigma is education—and making people conscious of the problem.IFMSA regional meetings for the 2015-16 academic year kicked off in Rwanda in December, where we trained 13 medical students from across Africa. In January, we trained 42 students at the Americas regional meeting in Uruguay, and another ten students at the Eastern Mediterranean regional meeting in Jordan. We expect similarly robust and stimulating conversations in the trainings to come this spring. And we hope that region by region, year after year, we are laying the groundwork on a global scale for more pro-choice health systems with providers who advance, rather than restrict, women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.