(Originally posted at Facebook on August 2nd, 2010.)

Twitter informs me that today is Mary Harris Jones' birthday. Mary Harris Jones, aka Mother Jones, is a big inspiration, and I thought I'd take a smidge of time to talk about her.

I believe I've spoken before about how I mostly support labor unions, at least in theory. In practice, well, they aren't perfect, but what is? Mother Jones was a labor agitator, and eventually formed the IWW. Even though I became aware of all the inequity and systemic fuckery in this world through socioeconomics and labor relations, that isn't primarily the spirit this is intended. Mostly, I mean the woman herself.

Mother Jones had a long life, much of it plagued by considerable hardship. I'm not going to write you a novel about it, you can ask Uncle Google if you want the specifics. What you need to know about her is that she was a fierce champion for the rights of the worker, and she was willing to lay it on the line, do and say whatever it took, if it would help achieve the goal. She was old-time tough, a hardbitten woman willing to say and do the unpleasant thing for what she believed in. Mother Jones fought the power for far longer than most people would've- the year Teddy Roosevelt called her "the most dangerous woman in the world" for storming down a road completely alone and confronting a militia owned by John Rockefeller over a strike to enforce the 8-hour day that Colorado had recently made law, she was 83 years old.

She wasn't even from this country, but in that respect she was fundamentally American, and that's what I admire so much about her. That's what the hell we need in this country. We need people who are willing to call it as they see it, do and say the unpleasant and usually uncomfortable thing for the things they believe in. We need people willing to ask the questions, make people a little uncomfortable, dig under the fragile veneer that holds our society together to find the truth, however wanting, underneath, and we need people willing to do that regardless of what others think about it. We need people who are willing to blur, blend, and defy definition and delineation, people willing to confound those who attempt to classify while working for the betterment of our society. (Our entire society, not just white male conservatives.) We need people with big hammers who are willing to smash the hell out of all forms of systemic inequity, and willing to engage with people who endeavor to maintain the status quo.

We need people with the courage of their convictions.

Those weren't just words for Mother Jones. That was her life. She lived it, and I respect the hell out of that. I try as best I can to embody that, even when it's hard and uncomfortable and lands me in hot water, which it does with not-at-all startling frequency. I don't always stick the landing. It's a tiring, if not exhausting, way to be, and I don't always have the energy. Sometimes the enormity of the reality of all the issues we face as a society overwhelms. Sometimes, a lot of times, it seems futile. That I can make the choice to engage or not is indicative of privilege on multiple levels, and although I'm trying like hell to keep that particular knapsack as empty as possible, it will never be truly empty because of who I am and the socioeconomic space I inhabit.

I never give up, though. Ghandi wasn't just speaking to hear his own voice when he encouraged us to be the changes we wanted to see. No one ever said it would be easy, and no one ever said it wouldn't suck sometimes, but it is inherently worth it. Our society is inherently better because of her willingness to fight the power, and we owe her and all our likeminded foremothers a great debt.

Rest in power, Mother Jones. Give 'em hell.
(Originally posted at Facebook on December 6th, 2009.)

For my Black Feminism in Action class's final project this semester, the project was to create and submit a 'zine. 'zines typically have one single, unifying theme, so I chose the theme of "Girls Singing Night" to represent many things in my life as of late, really, but mostly the unifying theme of various types of performance- the play I was in last semester, but also the change in how you choose to present yourself in various situations. This has changed drastically for me as of late, and I felt it prudent to discuss. The actual phrase came from what Ani DiFranco named the second disc of her live album "So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter," and I was happy to get an Ani mention in there as she was pivotal as well.

In the 'zine, and in this piece, I wish to discuss my path to feminism. They say that you really learn something when you have to teach it to someone else. I hadn't actually thought about it too closely, so I had to pin it down and analyze it before I could articulate it to someone else. In retrospect, it seems fairly circumspect. Because I'm meander-y tonight, you get to hear about it. Awesome.


I didn't have an actual, close personal relationship with feminism for most of my life. I knew that they and the suffragists were responsible for my right to vote. I knew that they were responsible for a lot of the cushy comforts that I enjoy. Obviously I knew that Roe vs Wade was dreadfully important, and I supported all these things. But I didn't call myself a feminist.


In 2003 or thereabouts, I came upon a book that would change my life. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed came to me via my mother. A lot of people were apparently talking about it on TV, I think it was on Oprah's Book Club? I dunno. Anyway, Ehrenreich's premise was simple: she was to visit 3 or 4 cities and try to do what is supposed to be possible- marry expenses to income while working a minimum wage job. Even with the advantages of being white, of above-average intelligence, articulate, having her own car, and having $1k in start-up funds, she was only briefly able to do so, and it took her working 2 separate jobs, and doing so 7 days a week.

The book itself isn't perfect, but it was my first true introduction to what privilege means, particularly as it relates to class, and what that can mean for your lifestyle and finances.

In the book, Ehrenreich attempts to work at Wal-Mart, and I just ate that shit up, as Wal-Mart was already one of my pet topics. Still is, actually. One of the things I've been following with considerable interest is the drive to unionize individual Wal-Marts. It is in Wal-Mart's best interests not to allow unionizing, as unionizing would foster camaraderie as well with everything else. It is in their best interests to keep everyone alone and separate so that they have no position to bargain for better working conditions and treatment from. Unionizing would supply that position. In recent years there have been a few stores in the company that have done so successfully, though. I wish they all would.

I've always wanted to be union. I've always wanted to be a card-carrying member of one of the institutions that built this country, and I do believe unions, along with feminists, are one of the forces that helped to make this country what it is. Certainly there are bad unions- union politics can be just as nasty as regular politics, but there's nothing like a good union to fight for you and your rights when your employer is pushing you around.

I've written before about how this nation really is separating into a nation of haves and have-nots, just as Steinbeck envisioned. That's what the haves try to do, you know. They try to separate us, keep us small and separate so that we can't effectively fight for ourselves and our livelihoods. Over a year ago I wrote, saying that it was the worst I'd ever seen at the time. Well, it is worse now.

This is why a solid understanding of Wal-Mart, its protectors, and economic forces that allow it to flourish were crucial to my becoming a feminist. You see, I approached the problem from a macro-level understanding: why it was possible for retailers such as Wal-Mart to offer such low prices in the first place. The answer, we now know, takes few words to explain but has breathtaking implications for our economy: they can sell each unit so cheaply because they sell so many units. They procure each unit so cheaply because they procure so many units. To procure each unit so cheaply, they ruthlessly squeeze their suppliers. To supply Wal-Mart with the requested number of units, suppliers must squeeze every cent/yuan/peso of efficiency they can from their organization, resulting in their workers being paid a pittance.

You want to know how it is possible to make that $3 T-Shirt you're wearing? That's how.

Regular retailers cannot compete in such a landscape. They buy fewer units, so they must make more with each one.

This systematically impacts people of color, women, people without various types of privileges disproportionately, and negatively. Women are more likely to be working in those factories. You know what some of these factories are like? They don't allow things like that in this country anymore, and for good reason. Women are more likely to be the ones working in the retail spaces selling the things procured from those factories, and guess what? The pay is shit! A considerable amount of people on Wal-Mart's payroll are also on various government assistance rolls. Taken directly from the Criticism of Wal-Mart entry on Wikipedia, which isn't the best source but gives you a general idea: A 2002 survey by the state of Georgia's subsidized healthcare system, PeachCare, found that Wal-Mart was the largest private employer of parents of children enrolled in its program; one quarter of the employees of Georgia Wal-Marts qualified to enroll their children in the federal subsidized healthcare system Medicaid.

I could go on and on, but you already know it. You already know how earning lower wages in comparison to men directly affects you your whole life, and how much money you'll have when it comes time to draw Social Security, assuming you get there. You already know how living in a constant state of poverty can affect your health and that of your dependents, if you have any. You know about redlining. You know about the lack of access that people without various types of privilege have to things that those of us with various types of privilege have, and how that also affects you and your dependence.

All of this disproportionately affects women. We have been systematically targeted. Such policies, implemented by the haves, directly cause all of these things and more. It affects us. Me and you. Right now.

That was my path to feminism. The personal really is political. It's happening right now.

This is why I'm a feminist.



September 2012



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