Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Big Top Is In Town With Octagalore

This is the final interview in the series to celebrate International Womans Day.  Octagalore can be found at her blog Astarte’s Circus

BIO:  I live in Southern CA with my husband and four year old daughter, and I’m a partner in a legal search firm.  My resume includes: engineer, Yakuza bar hostess, internet director, stripper, lawyer, fitness instructor – not necessarily in that order.  I have issues with attention span. 

1) Well we shall ask the obvious question first, what was your feminist click moment?

It happened at different times, at different levels.  When my high school physics teacher said he’d never send his daughter to MIT.  When working in the auto industry in Detroit and seeing a much more blatant form of sexism than one sees on either coast, on average.  Getting pawed by law firm partners and then told it would be my word against theirs, and guess who was more valuable.  It was an accumulation rather than a moment.

2) In the recent US election what became readily obvious was a generational split in feminism.  Do you feel the issues of older feminists are taken seriously, and what can we do to ensure that the voices of our mature leaders continue to be understood as not only relevant but necessary in any and all conversations?

Good question.  I think we start at home and because most ideas have emerged before from others, make sure we’re appropriately building off and crediting efforts from earlier feminists, even where we don’t endorse their beliefs wholesale.  Many times an idea that appears in a third-wave book seems new and exciting to me, but my mom reads it and says it’s been out there for years – but there’s no footnote saying that.  I don’t think this is deliberate, but I think it could be done better.  And not just for fairness – I think we could advance beyond older ideas faster if we didn’t waste time reinventing them.

Re politics: I think feminists tolerate ageist views of female leaders more than would be ideal.  Just as Randall Kennedy points out in “Sellout” that blacks are harder on Clarence Thomas than on Antonin Scalia, I think women are harder on female politicians and leaders who disappoint us in some way than on their male counterparts.  And we’re often not as sensitive to the intersection between ageism and gender and how it plays out as we should be.

3) How has feminism informed the way in which you parent, and specific lessons do you hope to impart to your daughter that were not taught to you?

Wow, another good one.  Yes, it absolutely has.  The way our culture markets sexy clothing and physical display in a gendered way, not to mention toys (dolls vs science kits, kitchen sets vs building blocks) is something I’m constantly vigilant about.  I try to find books that don’t have the “man rescues woman” theme that many fairy tales do.

About lessons my parents didn’t impart --  I love my parents and I think they were great parents.  They definitely imparted in me, though, that it was non-classy to care about money.  Our setup was middle-middle, which dipped lower when divorce and medical bills for a relative with a serious illness erupted.  After those things, and also because I realized that I didn’t want income to play a role in my choice of mate, I tried to get better informed and less hesitant about actively seeking a secure career.  I’d like my daughter to have an appreciation for money earlier.  Not from the standpoint that it makes anyone better or to acquire “things,” but to have a security net and equal economic power with her future mate of whatever gender.  I think the feminist movement doesn’t cover this point adequately.  It’s one thing to preach capitalism (which I do in part, but I don’t ask anyone else to do) – it’s another to preach self protection and that if you want to eat your cake, you have to help bake it.  If you look down on non-helping professions but have male relatives funnelling income your way so you can do that kind of work and still live well, there’s an inconsistency there. 

Bottom line?  My daughter will be well versed in Terry Hekker’s story.

4) You are a highly educated woman and therefore any conversation that you involve yourself in, your frame of reference comes to bear.  Many feminists fear engaging because of a lack of credentials.  How do we create a more open space so that feminists who have not had the privilege of education are respected and expected to participate in any and all conversations?

I think it’s about mutual respect.  Many friends I have in the feminist movement who don’t have similar educational creds have far superior knowledge of feminist (and other) history and knowledge about activism than I do.  It’s important to realize there isn’t just one kind of knowledge or credential.  We can all learn from each other.  This is something that isn’t about rules of engagement but about what kind of person you are, in my view.  I’m a snob in that everyone I seek out is smart, but that doesn’t have to mean formally educated.

5) As a former sex trade worker, do you feel that feminism engages in the same sort of slut shaming that we see in the wider culture?  C.O.Y.O.T.E, particularly challenges the idea that sex work is always exploitation.  How do we engage in conversations wherein we validate those that legitimately choose to engage in the sex trade while dealing with the very serious issue of sex slavery?

I think it’s important to tread a fine line here, as the question suggests.  I’m one of those people who’s betwixt and between, in terms of my sex work views.  I don’t think it’s always exploitation.  I think it’s important to respect sex workers’ perspectives on their own agency.  At the same time, as you note, there are horrible atrocities that are somewhat unique to sex work.  And I do think it is not a career we should encourage our daughters and young friends to enter.  Not because of its own merits, but because of the ageist, racist, sexist realities that dictate how it operates.  No career is perfect, but I think we start off by encouraging young people to find careers in which they can work for a lifetime – not get cast out at 40 (if you’re lucky) or risk disease. 

My situation was unique in that I was in my early 30s, about 8 years ago, and had already made my decisions about what risks I would and wouldn’t take re sex, drugs, etc.  Ten years earlier, I may have made different decisions.  The temptations in that line of work, bolstered by the constant acting stress involved, were at a higher level than other jobs.

All that said, I think we need to respect sex workers’ choices and evaluations.

6) What issues do you seek to confront by blogging and why have you chosen this platform as a form of activism?

The issues I care most about in my IRL activism are feminism and also unequal access to education based on class, gender and race.  I am part of a school counselling service attached to my alma mater in which my assignment is a particular geographical area in which most students are of color and lower to lower-middle class.  The goal of our group is to help students access the tools, whether it be knowledge about interviewing, filling out applications, money for prep classes, etc. to do a small part towards equalizing access.  The focus is on my alma mater, a well known tech school, but I focus on general skills to hopefully better equip kids to better pursue the school of their choice.

The frustration, though, is that with a full time job and child, my involvement always seems too little – and that goes for mothering too, which is a whole separate issue.  Blogging works with my job, legal placement and M&A, because I work from home without supervision, and can pick my hours.  I usually work nine hours but can pick which those are. 

And additionally, on the selfish side, blogging has opened up doors to so many interesting people – mostly women.  I deal with mostly guys on the job and have been lucky to find amazing female friends online, many of whom I’ve met IRL and some I hope to have the chance to meet. 

7) In previous discussions you have spoken about the need for women to express pride in their achievements.  Why do you feel that this is necessary and why is there is such a desire on the part of some to invoke the discourse of victimology?

I sense that is rhetorical!  But here goes.  I think just the fact that the “why is this necessary” can be asked as a serious question shows why it is.  I think there are two things going on here, in feminist bloglandia.

The first is that feminists are in large part women.  Culturally, there are different words for women who have pride in achievement – bitchy vs proud, aggressive vs assertive, emasculating vs strong.  These operate differently based on race, class and other groupings, and it’s important to understand it’s not one size fits all.  As someone in placement, I see women of all races hobbled by double standards in some similar ways.  We need to get past that and not let it daunt us.  We’re coming from behind, so slowing ourselves down by excessive self deprecation is a waste of time.

Secondly, feminist bloglandia has been rightly criticised for being white, mid to upper middle class centric.  But instead of a natural joining, many white feminist deal more from a guilt perspective than from an inclusion perspective.  This leads to a competition for who can be most oppressed, or who can be most elaborately sensitive (without actually treating some like a person, necessarily).  This kind of mindset closes off pride in achievements, because all achievements are deemed privilege – instead of an honest appraisal of what portion is privilege and what portions one can pat oneself on the back for.  At some level, most everything is privilege – even being online at all is.  As intelligent beings, walking and chewing gum at the same time is doable, and not affording oneself the joy in accomplishment is destructive.

On your second point about victimology.  You are being a bit crafty here as this is somewhat of a leading question.  Happy to be led, though. 

First, I see a difference between justifiable honesty about emotion and hurt, and allowing it to become self defeating.  I don’t pretend to be able to judge when this happens in the individual case, and so this is not about any particular individuals.  But, what I am not talking about here is righteous calling out of wrongs and honest exposure of wounds.  That’s all good.

At a certain point, though, it becomes more about attention-seeking.  The oddness about privilege in the feminist blogosphere – ranging from defensive denial to overly obsequious pandering – leads to all kinds of abuses.  Often, elite ignoring of those on whose backs the more visible trod on is permitted.  Less often but still occasional is taking advantage of popular sympathy to wear out a particular grievance beyond its expiration date.

8) In recent months we have once again seen the rise of the epic blogwar.  Rather than helping to bring about a form of cohesiveness these engagements are actually quite divisive.  In your opinion why do we continually return to this form of engagement and what can we do to end this destructive pattern?

Two reasons, I think. 

First, I’ll cheat and refer here.  I think women are left out to some degree, or are not as likely to be participants in, the capitalist culture, but have some of the same competitive urges, which play out in things like blogwars.  Not that men don’t do this, but I think it’s less likely that both men and women with another kind of competitive outlet showcase this quality in blogwar territory.

Second, for the same reason we run a particular direction when we hear “Fight, Fight!” on the schoolyard (or maybe that was just my school).  People get excited about the drama and mask that by feigning that they’re vigorously trying to right a particular wrong.  Typically, blogwars last long after the productive points are made.  At that point, it’s about the fun of watching ones online enemies get trashed, and contributing ones own verbal chops to help mash up the victim further.

9) Classism continues to be a very serious issue, particularly in light of the economic downturn.  There is very little feminist discourse as it relates to class.  We continually speak about the fact that women make 70 cents to every dollar a man makes and yet we refuse to acknowledge more than lip service to the term feminization of poverty.  How do we extend the conversation to include poor women and why is there such a resistance to truly engaging in strong critique of class in feminist circles?

I think part of the problem is that some poor women do not have the tools in terms of equipment and time to engage online, so they are less heard.  I think also there is a sense of frustration in that the answers and even the questions in this area seem so difficult to solve on a global level.  Many feminists are working in these areas on a community level, but the kind of work done at that level doesn’t always get blogged about.

Also, there are differences in feminism as to whether one approaches issues like poverty from a reform (eg, regulated capitalism, my own personal choice) or a more radical level.  Sometimes, as can be seen in many discussions between reform-oriented and radical feminists, from RadFem groups vs liberal feminists to RWOC vs reform oriented WOC, it’s hard to get talking about common goals.  Note that here I am not equating pro-capitalist to reform-oriented, just saying that is how it plays out for me.

10) Finally in honour of International womens day if you could choose what would you say are the top goals that feminism should aim to examine in the next five years?

First, reduce internal disputes. I think getting ones house in order is always the first priority and the best way to be effective in combating external issues. This would include (1) making intersectionality more than a sexy buzzword and actually DOING intersectionality rather than making feminism a hodgepodge of different issues with no common theme; (2) building coalitions between the different waves of feminism; (3) reducing conflict between radical and liberal feminists, pro-. anti-anti= and anti-porn feminists, and also feminists with differing politics.  We don’t have to be everyone’s friend, but the idea that “I can only work on issue X with people who agree with me on issues Y and Z is one that women tend to fall prey to more than men do.

Second, I’d like to see more emphasis on brainstorming practical solutions.  Some of this will be on a community level but there are things people could work on together on a larger level.  Just as an example of something I know – community work re educational access for poor girls.   I have some stuff I do, but I don’t spend a bunch of time and there are probably things I could be doing better or idea I haven’t thought of.  Maybe there are women doing this on a larger scale. or related things, who could offer suggestions or vice versa.  A feminist location online in which women could brainstorm in this way would be a good idea – and a good way to meet people in our cities to get together with and work with offline.


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