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Women in Prison: An Unquiet Minority

Victoria Law talks about the unlikely acts of self-assertion by the correctional system’s second sex
By Adam Hyla
Real Change
May 6, 2009

When we talk about prisoners, we’re still mostly thinking of men.

And the mental imagery that the subject conjures — from the TV show “Oz” perhaps, or “The Shawshank Redemption,” or from the Willie Horton ad of the 1988 presidential election — now belies a subtle yet, for those involved, explosive change. For during the 1990s, while the number of males in U.S. prisons grew by an astronomical 77 percent, the number of women grew by an even more astonishing 108 percent.

Still, only 7 percent of all those in state or federal prison are women. But as their numbers rise, the needs specific to their gender push up against the walls of an institution designed wholly with men in mind. How do female inmates express their different needs and organize for their rights? That’s the question posed by Victoria Law’s new book, “Resistance Behind Bars: the Struggles of Incarcerated Women” (PM Press).

As a kid, Law knew plenty of kids who rejected “stultifying days learning nothing” in their Queens public school in favor of a Chinatown gang. When they landed at Rikers Island, she brought them reading material. In 1996 she began a books-to-prisoners program that sent free literature to inmates across the country. Since 2002, she has published the zine “Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison,” which collects articles, essays, poetry and art from across the United States.

Of “Resistance Behind Bars,” historian, feminist and indigenous rights activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz says Law’s first book is “an illuminating effort” that “focuses not only on renowned political prisoners, but on the lives of ordinary women of all colors and ages, many being mothers separated from their children…. The author is well aware that in that long fight, women prisoners deserve support and honor in their daily efforts.” Weather Underground historian Dan Berger writes that “Law documents the many ways women challenge the twin forces of prison and patriarchy, each trying to render women invisible. In the face of attempts at erasure, women prisoners resist to survive and survive to resist.”

Law reads with local investigative journalist and essayist Silja J.A. Talvi on Thurs., May 14 in Seattle, in an event sponsored by Books to Prisoners, the all-volunteer local nonprofit established in the early 1970s.

You name a few things that are sending more women to prison, like mandatory sentencing

With mandatory sentencing, the judge has no way to consider mitigating factors: that this is a first-time offense, a nonviolent offense. If someone is convicted of a nonviolent drug offense, in New York state it was mandatory up until this year that they’d have 15 years to life for having two ounces or more of a narcotic. In 2005 the laws were reformed and people could go back to court and have their sentences reduced, but prosecutors actually went back and said we want more, not less time, for these people. So it ended up not being much of a reform.

And mandatory sentencing happens all over the country.

In some way or form. New York started it in 1973.

But also you have cases where wives or girlfriends are convicted because they took a phone message, because they were in the house. Their partner, being a bigger player in a drug operation, has valuable information to trade, so he gets his sentence reduced. The person who just took a phone message doesn’t have any valuable information to trade.

I don’t know if there are statistics saying how many women have been incarcerated under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which says you can be convicted of the same crime as your partner even if you did something seemingly inconsequential, but anecdotal evidence from talking to women in prison suggests many do.

You also mention poverty and the feminization of poverty.

In 1996 Clinton signed welfare reform, which led to the feminization of poverty in that many women who were on welfare now had time limits, and if you had a child while you were on welfare you had to sign a paper that said any future children would not be eligible for future benefits.

A study done fairly recently found that 96,000 people had been pushed off the welfare rolls who still had no formal employment. So that means you had 96,000 people trying to survive through some kind of informal economy: selling bootleg DVDs on the street, engaging in sex work, selling drugs. There’s 96,000 people, mostly women, unaccounted for.

Tell me about the lack of support systems for women leaving prison. How is it different from men?

I think there are gender issues that come up. We don’t view prisoners as female. The majority of women who go to prison are mothers and, of those, 65-90 percent are mothers of children under the age of 18. And so when they get out they’re trying to reunite with their children if they haven’t lost custody. Most transition places don’t think about, for example, hooking up former prisoners with affordable and safe childcare. If you have a three-year-old and no way to find child care that you can afford, you can’t be in a work program.

Do most female prisoners lose custody of their kids forever?

In 1997 Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which stated that if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state automatically terminates parental rights.


And given the gendered nature of society, it’s often the case that, if a father goes to prison, his partner, his mother, or his sister will step up. When a mother goes to prison, oftentimes their partner or spouse is already in prison or not around. So children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in the foster care system [than children of imprisoned fathers]. And after the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed, the number of termination cases rose dramatically.

So there is a rise in the number of mothers losing their kids, since many mandatory minimums extend beyond 15 months. And since there’s a societal expectation that men are less able to take care of their children, men often have a better social network to fall back on before they go into prison.

How do prison officials make it difficult for mothers to connect with their kids from the inside?

It depends on where the children have ended up. Even if the number of women in prison have increased more dramatically than the number of men, they are still fewer, and their facilities tend to be further from the urban areas from which most incarcerated people are drawn. They tend to be in these rural out-of-the-way areas. So the travel time and the expense makes it prohibitive to visit.
In New York state there’s Albion, up near the Canadian border, which is like a nine-hour bus ride, you’re looking at having to stay overnight in a motel, you’re looking at having to get from the motel to the prison with I don’t know what kind of public transport in the town; and then you’re looking at a nine-hour bus ride back. Say it’s grandma and one kid taking the bus for nine hours.

You mention in your book an unknown but very significant prison rebellion, something commensurate with Attica —

The August Rebellion? In New York. It happened in 1974, after a prisoner was beaten by a guard and placed in segregation. It was just a few miles from Attica, in the same state, at around the same time, when a lot of attention was being paid to prisoner rights, prisoners’ struggles, prisoner activism. Somehow, 30 years later, nobody remembers.

How long did it last?

About a day. Female prisoners took over parts of the prison, held seven staff members hostage, and the remaining staff were unable to take back the prison and had to call in male state troopers and male guards from neighboring prisons. The women were basically protesting the beating of this prison organizer who had won a court case the month before saying women were not to be placed in segregation [solitary confinement] without some sort of hearing.

She took this to court and won, and in retaliation the guards beat her and placed her in segregation, again without a hearing. The women, instead of saying ‘That’s just what happens, that’s prison,’ fought off the guards and took over parts of the prison.

Do you have any hypotheses as to why events like that don’t get the same attention as an Attica?

I think in large part we define prisoners, still, as male. Women get a lot less attention, a lot less support. When women go to prison they get a lot less important, period.

In New York there’s Rikers Island, a whole island devoted to pre-trial detainment, and on visiting day on the men’s side there’s a three-hour wait, the visiting room is packed with all these women going to visit their men folk, whether it’s mothers visiting sons or wives visiting husbands or girlfriends visiting boyfriends. And then you go to the women’s side and it’s empty.

And I think also that, when women are organizing too, a lot of the historical instances I got from reading journals like Off Our Backs, publications that, if you’re not interested in feminist issues, you’re not going to read.

Mainstream feminism certainly hasn’t embraced prison issues.

No. I think feminism regards it as a travesty but doesn’t ask what are the underlying causes of this, what can we do, and what are women themselves doing about this — even if they’re relatively small things.

Things like demanding hot water and soap.

Or things that are more female specific, like sanitary napkins and tampons. Which is something again that isn’t an issue in male prisons. If someone is bleeding heavily it’s a sanitary issue and a human rights issue.

You had some heartbreaking stories about people with undiagnosed terminal illness — like cancer.

Prisons are very slow to deal with anyone’s health concerns, because it costs time and money. If you add onto that the idea that the prison must say, ‘Oh, now we’ve got to screen you for breast cancer?’ it’s a lot easier to just kind of pretend it doesn’t exist. And because it is someone in prison, with limited ways to challenge this, the prison feels like they can.

You write in your conclusion that prisons “function as a site of state sanctioned violence against women.” What do the rest of us get out of this?

A false sense of security. There’s been a standard set: in order to be safe, we need to have a place where we can lock up these quote-unquote bad people. I also think people aren’t thinking very deeply about these issues. If you ask who goes to prison, people think Willie Horton or Charles Manson. I don’t think people are asking why we’re locking up three million people at a cost of $40,000 each when we could be taking that money and using it on things like mental health services.

Do you have any heroes in prison resistance?

I don’t know if I’d call them heroes, because that’s rather personal, but there are many people who have been really strong and courageous and defiant in the face of having their dignity and liberty stripped away. People who are actively challenging things, like Carol Cooks, whose beating sparked the August Rebellion. There’s Mary Glover, who went in and filed the groundbreaking Glover vs. Johnson in 1977, which gave women incarcerated in Michigan the right to the same vocational training that men had. She went on to be part of 11 other civil rights cases against the prison.

There was a woman in Florida, Yraida Guanipa, who for eight years surreptitiously wrote to every church and civil rights organization — anyone she could get an address for — and asked, “We in this federal prison are 300 miles from our children in Miami; would you be willing to sponsor a bus so our kids could come up?” Under Federal Bureau of Prisons rules it’s illegal for prisoners to ask for help from the outside world; they can get charged with soliciting and get additional time. Even though she knew this was the case she kept doing it, and after eight years found an organization to sponsor the bus so the children of 50 mothers could travel to see their mothers for the first time in who knows how long.

And these are things that are not often recognized as acts of activism or resistance because they’re small, but they mean a tremendous amount to a lot of people

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The Herbivore's Dilemna

By Aric McBay
Briarpatch Magazine
January/ February 2009

The Vegetarian Myth argues that strict vegetarianism is not the best diet for our health, for animals or for the planet. The stance is controversial in environmental and animal rights circles, but the subject matter is thoroughly explored, exhaustively researched and very persuasive. Keith is adamantly opposed to fast food and factory farming, but believes that strict vegetarianism isn’t the answer either, arguing instead for a sustainable food system based on mixed farming and a diet that includes moderate amounts of animal products.

Lierre Keith does not come to this issue as an outsider. She spent 20 years as a vegan, eventually developing a degenerative illness - which she attributes to veganism in the book - before finally changing her diet and life to become a chicken-raising omnivore. If anyone is qualified to write this book, she is.

Keith explores the arguments surrounding vegetarianism on moral, political, nutritional and environmental grounds. She does not claim that common arguments against vegetarianism are correct, but that common arguments both for and against vegetarianism are often based on a superficial (or outright false) understanding of agriculture, ecology and nutrition. (For example, a main nutritional issue with vegetarianism is not the problem of getting enough protein, but the problem of getting high-quality digestible protein and enough of the nutrients found in animal fats to absorb minerals.) It’s true, she argues, that common assumptions about vegetarianism are simply wrong, but many false or misleading beliefs can only be unravelled by a deeper analysis of human and animal nutrition, medical literature and farming methods.

For example, we’re often told that eating vegetarian food will use less land and therefore feed more people. (Of course, to some extent, producing more food is beside the point, since famine almost invariably stems from unstable monocultures and inequitable distribution rather than from an overall supply shortage.) The original argument is about feed conversion - it takes more than 10 kilograms of grain to produce a kilogram of factory-farmed beef. But Keith points out that farm animals like cows are intrinsically grass-eaters, not grain-eaters, and that a diet of mostly grain is not healthy for cattle or humans who eat them. And while it’s true that a yield-per-acre of monocultured soybeans is higher than that of grass-fed beef, pasturing animals is far more sustainable, since it doesn’t require tilling the soil, the use of annual monocultures, irrigation and so on. The author is certainly not arguing that factory farming of animals is acceptable by any criteria, but rather that sustainable food depends on the use of perennial polycultures that include animals.

Keith’s in-depth discussion of agriculture and ecology meshes with her discussion of morality. A major shortcoming of moral vegetarianism, she writes, is that even though it’s true that eating meat means killing individual animals, large-scale agriculture wipes out entire species and vast areas of habitat. These effects are much larger, and indeed, worse for animals, than community-scale perennial polycultures. As Keith writes, “Agriculture is carnivorous: what it eats is ecosystems, and it swallows them whole.” Of course, all of this is merely scratching the surface of her analysis.

The author’s prose is clear and readable, but with the human touch. Despite being a non-fiction book covering some pretty heavy issues, the book is ultimately a personal story and as accessible and easy to read as a novel. There is sparse but appropriate use of tables and illustrations.

There’s no doubt that this book may be a challenging read for some vegans and vegetarians. But it’s not provocative for the sake of being provocative, nor is it any kind of attack on vegetarians. As Lierre Keith makes clear, her beef (so to speak) with vegetarianism is not that vegetarians have the wrong impulse, but that they have the wrong information about agriculture and ecology. (Of course, some vegans have thanked me effusively for sharing this book with them.) None of this will stop some vegetarians from taking any criticism of their diet personally - vegetarianism can be such a deeply held part of a person’s identity - but I hope that everyone who reads this book will take the time to understand the central arguments thoroughly.

Indeed, perhaps the people who are most likely to feel challenged by this book are those who might gain the most from reading it. When I shared this book with a friend of mine, another ex-vegetarian and long-time farmer, he told me: “Everyone who eats should read this book. Everyone who eats vegetarian should memorize it.” There might be a touch of hyperbole there. But there’s no exaggeration for me in saying that this is the single most important book I’ve ever read on diet, agriculture and ecology. And as a farmer and ex-vegan, that’s saying a lot.

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The Vegetarian Myth Reviewed in Permaculture Activist

By Peter Bane
Permaculture Activist #72, Summer 2009

This book almost literally blew in the door one March day recently and I found myself still engrossed in its captivating story an hour after tearing open the brown padded wrapper. That doesn't very often happen.

Lierre Keith has written a compelling tale of her own near self-destruction from a vegan diet and a broadside against its being perpetrated upon or adopted by any other victims. She has converted 20 years of pain and suffering, and permanent damage to her health into a galvanizing passion to demolish the myth that she believe underpins the worldview of most who adopt vegan diet: "I want to eat without killing." You can't, she says, and if you try you'll die.

The arguments are compelling, and bluntly presented in three large chapters addressing moral, nutritional, and political vegetarians. Every field of grain or soybeans kills ecosystems and a myriad of creatures mostly too small to be seen and thus wept over. But they are just as dead as steers stunned and gutted in a meatpacking plant. At this point the enterprise of agriculture threatens all life on planet Earth.

Humans, unlike ruminants, cannot eat grass and survive. Our digestive systems are tuned for a variety of foods, always including meat. Many vegans, she reports from personal experience, do not know this, and fantasize worlds in which the lamb and the lion shall lie down, if not together, then at least on either side of a big fence from each other—eating the same uncomplaining plants. Can modern people actually be this ignorant? It seems so. Traditional diets have universally recognized the importance of flesh foods, especially animal fats, as the researches of Weston Price and many others have confirmed for over a hundred years. But modern people devoid of dietary or any other cultural traditions have picked up deadly memes, and many, especially younger people, have killed themselves trying to atone for civilizational violence.

Keith is no less an activist for interspecies justice and care of the earth now than she was when eschewing flesh in her diet. Are plants insentient? Do they care naught for their offspring? Of course, and the moral impulses that inform veganism are still sound: we should care for all life—animal, plant, and microbe alike—and especially its higher expressions in the organization of ecosystems and species genomes. She has simply recognized the appalling state of willful ignorance that drew her down a deadly road, and is determined to do all she can through personal testimony and powerful persuasion to prevent any others falling victim to the same form of self-destructive madness.

The author demolishes political vegetarianism by exposing its ignorance. On the pretense (and this is the one that caught me 36 years ago) that surplus grain and oil crops from the western developed countries were needed to feed the hungry of India, Africa, and Asia, many political vegetarians have persuaded themselves to turn away from healthy food and embrace arrangements of power that, were they seen clearly, would be understood as imperialist, racist, even genocidal—certainly unjust. No, people in the majority world don't need U.S. food aid. They don't need GMO corn or inedible soybeans. These countries need us to stop overpowering their own native farm sectors with our subsidized exports and our high-powered trade negotiators. She goes on to peel the covers back from the orgy of interlocked corporate boards that makes up the American food system. Scratch beneath the skin of Dean Foods or Odwalla Juice, Hain Food Group, Cascadian Farms or Muir Glen, and you find the likes of Chevron, General Electric, Monsanto, Nike, Starbucks, Texas Instruments, and WalMart as the majority stockholders. "So you're an environmentalist. Why don't you know any of this?," she asks.

Feedlot finishing, chickens in battery houses, and CAFO pork operations are lousy, and we shouldn't be eating that food, but animals living their lives under the sun on agricultural savannas like those nurtured by intensive graziers such as Joel Salatin and thousands of others are tremendously healthy. These carefully managed pastures are sequestering carbon, increasing plant diversity, and growing healthy food for people. Wake up! The author's words virtually scream out from the page. You who disdain eating flesh are fooling no one but yourselves.

Apart from the gripping passion of Keith's personal narrative, why should anyone already eating meat bother reading this book, with its indictments of fast food addiction, its tight analysis of the downward spiral of anorexia and bulimia, and its chilling litany of the deterioration of the body deprived of saturated fats and animal proteins? Because control of food is central to the control of our bodies, our minds, and the political system itself. The author has done a tremendous amount of focused research on the issues of diet and nutrition, ecosystem destruction, agriculture, and the manipulation of the food system, and the chain of money and control that weave an insidious trap for us all. You will learn many things you need to know here. Things on which your very life depends.

This book is a political exposé, a diet book, a treatise on anthropology, and a roaring condemnation of grain agriculture. Keith looks at agriculture's destruction of the land, amped up by fossil fuels to a massive holocaust in the past five decades, and finds no redemption anywhere. She admits that the Land Institute's project to breed seed-heavy perennial grasses could prevent much of the destruction of plow agriculture, but asks "why would we want to?" When Kansas and the rest of the Great Plains virtually overflowed with bison, antelope, and a host of other ruminants, flesh of which is superb food for humans, why would we try to replace it with something that may not ever work, and certainly stands little chance of feeding anyone for decades?

Grain isn't good for us. We love it because its seeds contain small amounts of opioids that give our brains a rush, but it causes all our tissues to swell when we eat it: our joints, our livers, our nerves, our blood vessels. Most of the degenerative diseases of modern life are linked to the inflammatory influence of a diet rich in refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils. We eat them also because they are the cheapest and most profitable calories that industrial farming and food processing can put on the shelf, and Money wants us to eat them.

Meat, Keith reminds us, especially organ meats with their superb assembly of minerals and saturated fats, literally made humans into our modern form. These readily absorbed, nutrient-dense foods allowed our brains to grow and our digestive tracts to shrink. We are still dependent on this complex of foods for wholesome nutrition, but most of us don't know it. Or should I say that the cultures that reminded us of its importance are eroding and disappearing from the modern world. And that the manipulation of memes by corporate advertising is killing us, one cheese puff at a time.

In the nature of a book that attempts to integrate personal passion and scholarship to a high degree, it might be too much to expect a program of reform to be well articulated. In her fourth chapter, Keith expounds on a simple formula for saving the world: Refrain from having children; stop driving your car; and grow your own food. Many will take issue with at least the first, though by any account we need to reduce the human population humanely and as fast as possible, but there can be little quarrel with the science of the latter two points. You won't find a lot here about how to make the changes happen—and let me tell you they are tough in the aggregate—though the author gives a good account of the logic of permaculture and the importance of perennial polycultures, rotational grazing, and no-till gardening. In recommending how "To Save the World," Keith takes a good lick at patriarchy and monotheism along with industrial farming and soy pseudofoods. By this point in the argument, you don't have to care if her polemic is over-the-top. The point has been driven home. Our food system is killing us—resist!

Published with the blessing and under the imprint of Derrick Jensen's Flashpoint Press, The Vegetarian Myth is an attractive and information-rich book that lives up to its subtitle. Aside from a few graphs used to illustrate the manipulation of cholesterol studies, the books consists of text only. The cover theme of Lascaux cave art is carried through on most pages with tiny glyphs of bison marking transition points in the text. No matter the lack of illustration, the writing is powerful and persuasive. Keith has every reason to be bitter and angry, but she has transmuted her anger and seasoned it well with a self-reflective humor that sweeps us along this road to recovery from a scorched earth. As I read her description of her first meat meal in 20 years (a can of tuna eaten reluctantly with a plastic fork), I found myself in tears. Ten years recovering from a quarter century of vegetarian folly myself, I never went through the agony that Keith lives with yet, but I knew the shattering epiphany she experienced with that first bite—coming home to the truth of her body, and of life itself.

Whether you are a vegan (run, if you can, to the bookstore), vegetarian, recovering from either diet, or never gave up meat at all, you will benefit from this author's painful mistakes and her laser-like focus on the path to a sane diet and all that it entails. Mark this one for the top shelf on cultural recovery.

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Are Vegetarians Living a Lie?

By Keith Goetzman
UTNE Reader
May 22, 2009

When an author comes out with a book called The Vegetarian Myth (Flashpoint Press), as Lierre Keith has, you know she’s not treading lightly, and the book is every bit as hell-raising as its name suggests. Keith comes from an ex-vegan perspective in this takedown of vegetarianism and veganism, and she acknowledges right away that she’s in for some pushback:

It’s not just the amount of information that makes the discussion hard. Often the listener doesn’t want to hear it, and the resistance can be extreme. “Vegetarian” isn’t just what you eat or even what you believe. It’s who you are, and it’s a totalizing identity. In presenting a fuller picture of food politics, I’m not just questioning a philosophy or a set of dietary habits. I’m threatening a vegetarian’s sense of self. And most of you will react with defensiveness and anger. I got hate mail before I’d barely started this book. And no, thank you, I don’t need any more.

Keith goes on to make her case, which basically is this: 1) Vegetarianism will damage your body. It damaged mine. 2) Our bodies are made to eat meat. 3) Converting to a vegetarian or vegan diet isn’t healing the planet if all you’re doing is eating veggies, fruit, and annual grains grown by large and distant megafarms, as most food is—even the stuff at the “natural” food store.

She is ultimately a radical environmentalist, which isn’t surprising since the book is published by Flashpoint, the imprint run by radical green author Derrick Jensen, who is quoted on the jacket front saying, “This book saved my life.” Keith suggests that as important as food choices are, bigger steps are needed to stave off environmental collapse. Namely, refrain from having children; stop driving a car; and grow your own food.

Oh, and by the way:

“Agriculture has to stop. It’s about to run out anyway—of soil, of water, of ecosystems—but it would go easier on us all if we faced that collectively, and then developed cultural constraints that would stop us from ever doing it again.

“Where I live, the wetlands need to return to cover the land in a soft, slow blanket of water. … The rivers need to be undimmed. And the suburbs and roads need to be abandoned. I have no great solution for how to make that economically feasible: I sincerely doubt it’s possible. I only know it has to happen, no matter how much we resist.”

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Hill, Brenner Read at Moe's

Incredible Double

By Ken Bullock
The Berkeley Daily Planet
June 11, 2009

Owen Hill, longtime bookseller at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, will read from his new humorous detective novel about the Berkeley adventures of Clay Blackburn, book scout and private eye, The Incredible Double (P.M. Press), for the reading series he established and continues to run at Moe’s. Summer Brenner will also read from her latest, I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex.

“Summer and I read together on tour,” Hill said, “Five readings in New York City. We come off as a team. She writes hardhitting noir; mine’s full of jokes.”

Hill’s detective fiction comes from the building he lives in, around the corner from Moe’s, on Dwight Way, the Chandler Apartments, also the title of his first novel, published in 2002 and now out of print

“It’s a grand old building,” said Hill, “And would work well in a mystery, I thought. It became a kind of joke. I’d always written poetry. On a whim, when I was laid up, I started The Chandler Apartments. I must’ve joked around enough. I’d always been a mystery fan, knew the form as a reader; there’s a lot of pulp in my library. I stole from [poet] Jack Spicer’s Tower of Babel the idea of using the detective novel to poke fun at the poets in your circle. The Chandler Apartments is full of poets. In a bland world, poets are still kind of nutty. I respect them for it.”

Asked to give a thumbnail description of the story, Hill said, “With a short book—The Incredible Double is 140 pages—it’s hard to give a reading without giving the plot away! Clay Blackburn’s a book scout and poet at the end of his scouting run. It’s harder and harder to make a living as a scout, so he falls into detecting. Through some weird fluke, he’s hired to find a Berkeley nut who threatened a CEO, whose security forces don’t know how to penetrate the Telegraph Avenue underground.

Questioned about that impenetrable underground, which swirls outside Moe’s front window, Hill replied, “It’s as I’d like it to be. There’s not much of a Bohemia anymore, in this country at least. But there is in my novel.”

Pressed about Berkeley locations in the book, Hill cautiously answered, “Moe’s is in it a lot, of course, where Clay sells his books; a couple of my coworkers get to have cameos. There’s a kidnapping in Elephant Pharmacy—gone now. Clay likes to drink at Cesar’s; he meets his love interest there. My car mechanic, from Pete’s Automotive, happens to drink at Cesar’s, too, so another cameo.”

“It’s kind of a Berkeley thing,” Hill added, “An auto mechanic with an advanced degree. The overeducated underachiever. A friend’s plumber is a marine biologist! Such a beautiful part of Berkeley, which makes conversations so interesting. It doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Hill himself hails from Southern California, “Torrance, the suburbs, till 20, 21, then to Santa Cruz. I was heading for college, but dropped out. I did a stint as ice cream maker at Polar Bear, pre-Haagen-Daaz gourmet ice cream, then got a job as a buyer at Logos Books on the Mall. Then came to San Francisco, worked at Columbus Books, after Discovery Books went out of business there, near City Lights. Then did a stint at Shakespeare & Co. while I argued my way into Moe’s—‘Moe, I could buy for you...’ ‘No, no...’ Finally, he gave in.”

Moe gave in in 1986. Reflecting on almost a quarter century on the Avenue, Hill said, “It’s been a long ride, but it’s home. It’s the best bookstore I was ever in. Moe took care of his employees, and that’s still happening, post-Moe. It’s a little oasis.”

Expanding on the theme, Hill said, “I’ve always really liked public life, bookstores and cafes as the place to make a living. There’s a constant flow of characters.”

The reading series at Moe’s “started very informally, then snowballed. So many other bookstores were dropping off; we became the premiere reading series in the East Bay—readings once, twice, three times in a week. But it began almost by accident. There was a little garden area behind Moe’s we don’t use anymore. [Poets] Clark Coolidge, Michael McClure, Nanos Valaoritis were all friendly customers, shopping the poetry section. I said, Why not come outside? That was 1999. Then we came back in, later got a microphone ... Now I’ve invited myself to read in my own series. And I accepted.”

Bookseller, “curator” of the poetry section at Moe’s, himself a poet, detective novelist and humorist ... “I’m happy to be in the middle of it. Coming from the suburbs, I’ve been running away from blandness my whole life. Berkeley isn’t bland.”

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The Southside Sleuth

Incredible DoubleBerkeley Eccentrics Animate Owen Hill's Mysteries
By Anneli Rufus
East Bay Express
June 9, 2009

Clay Blackburn gets to prowl around strangers' houses and peek into their lives. He does this under the auspices of not just one but two different occupations: Blackburn, the bisexual Berkeley-based protagonist in a series of mysteries by poet/novelist Owen Hill, is a book scout: That is, he browses yard sales, estate sales, and other venues seeking secondhand volumes that he can sell for a profit. But he's also a private eye: very private, in that "I barely qualify. I don't have a license, don't carry a gun," Blackburn muses when about to meet a prospective client at the start of Hill's latest book, The Incredible Double. Books are his main gig. "But sometimes I take these jobs."

The job driving this novel, which Hill will discuss at Moe's Books (2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) on Monday, June 15, starts when a drugstore-chain magnate claims he's been getting snail-mail death threats with a Berkeley postmark and hires Blackburn to scope out their source. This magnate, whose not-so-subtle-reference surname is Wally, "looked like Ross Perot, but with hair. ... Soap-opera hair, silver and sprayed." Sure, he's got his own crack security detail: "Gleaned from the Special Forces, mostly. ... They captured Saddam, for heaven's sake," Wally boasts. But "Berkeley isn't Iraq," so he wants Blackburn, who knows this turf — because "Berkeley gives 'behind enemy lines' new meaning."

That's the first measure of a maze along which Blackburn hurtles with his trusty clutch of Berkeley regulars: a conspiracy theorist, an eloquent ex-druggie, and his best pal Marvin, whom he calls "my own personal Jiminy Cricket. ... He's an unrepentant Communist, but it's easier for him. He owns his house."

Blackburn's bisexuality is remarkably rare in fiction. "Until recently," Hill says, "the 'bi' part of the gay-bi-transgendered coalition wasn't there. I had an agent tell me, 'There's a niche for gay, but not for this.' But I'm optimistic. Remember, Gore Vidal once said, 'Everyone is bisexual.' I like those demographics."

"Most people don't really know what their books are worth. They think they have 'rare' first editions." When they're wrong, "I try to let people down easy." When he does make a buy, "sometimes I feel like the smiling undertaker."

On the night of his reading, he'll share the mic with Summer Brenner, whose novel I-5 is, like Hill's, new from Berkeley-based PM Press.

Although his eccentric characters are admittedly often based on real people, he says he's had "no complaints so far. When I use real names, it's out of respect — Edward Dorn, Joanne Kyger. The scenes I'm documenting are full of these offbeat, interesting characters. Sometimes it feels like fish in a barrel. Any given day at Moe's I see enough characters to make up a novel." 7:30 p.m., free. See Calender Listing.

Buy book now


PM Press at Think GalactiCon

Think GalactiConPM is going to Chicago to talk politics and fiction! Speculative fiction at that, you all know there's nothing we'd rather be doing, and we have some brilliant sci fi coming out soon ourselves! We'll have a table with all of the finest in PM wares, and one of the featured speakers is Josh MacPhee, author of Paper Politics, which will also soon be available through PM! So check out the con's website, and if you'll be in Chicago between July 26th and 28th, we hope we'll see you there, as it's not too late to register!

Think GalactiCon 

Taking a cue from Wiscon, the world's leading feminist science fiction convention, we are looking to create a space in which leftists can discuss politics and speculative fiction in an intelligent, engaging, and fun fashion. There will be multiple tracks of programming that seek to expand the boundaries of typical discussions. We want to explore issues of oppressive hierarchies, confronting topics of race, gender, sexuality, class and more. We have a lot of great ideas for a thoughtful and challenging weekend of radical politics and fiction, so we hope to see you come!

Featured guests:

Eleanor Arnason is a science fiction author who brings politics into her writing in thoughtful and engaging ways. Her works are subtlely complex explorations of how cultures engage with colonialism, gender, and sexuality, and the compromises individuals must make to find their place within them. Her first novel, The Sword Smith, was published in 1978 and she is the author of four other novels and numerous short stories. She is the winner of the Homer Award, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, the Mythopoeic Award, and the very first James Tiptree, Jr. Award—an award for "gender-bending" science fiction. Check out her blog at

Josh MacPhee is an artist, activist, and sci-fi fan. He made his first political zine in high school and has been engaged in activist projects ever since. He is the author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street and editor of Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority. He has curated numerous art shows focusing on political art, most recently Paper Politics, which has been touring the US since 2004, and is the founder of Just Seeds—a collectively run distribution system for getting radical art projects out to the public. Josh was an early supporter of the Think Galactic reading group and was there when it all began. Check out some of his amazing artwork and the People's History poster series at

PM's new offerings in Speculative Fiction:

Lucky StrikeComing Soon!

The Lucky Strike
By Kim Stanley Robinson

Combining dazzling speculation with a profoundly humanist vision, Kim Stanley Robinson is known as not only the most literary but also the most progressive (read “radical”) of todayʼs top rank SF authors. The Lucky Strike, the classic and controversial story Robinson has chosen for PMʼs new Outspoken Authors pocketbook series, begins on a lonely Pacific island, where a crew of untested men are about to take off in an untried aircraft with a deadly payload that will change our world forever. Until something goes wonderfully wrong...

Plus: A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions, in which Robinson dramatically deconstructs “alternate history” to explore what might have been if things had gone differently over Hiroshima that day; and an extended tour though the mind and work, the history and politics of our Outspoken Author. Surprises are promised.

“The foremost writer of literary utopias.”—Time

“If I had to choose one writer whose work will set the standard for science fiction in the future, it would be Kim Stanley Robinson.”—The New York Times



Coming Soon!

The Left Left Behind
By Terry Bisson

Hugo and Nebula award-winner Terry Bisson is best known for his short stories. He is also a 1960ʼs New Left vet with a history of activism and an intact (if battered) radical ideology. The Left Behind novels (about the so-called “Rapture” in which all the born-agains ascend straight to heaven) are among the bestselling Christian books in the US, describing in lurid detail the adventures of those “left behind” to battle the Anti-Christ. Put Bisson and the Born-Agains together, and what do you get? The Left Left Behind—a sardonic, merciless, tasteless, take-no-prisoners satire of the entire apocalyptic enterprise that spares no one—predatory preachers, goth lingerie, Pacifica radio, Indian casinos, gangsta rap, and even “art cars” at Burning Man.

Plus: a no-holds-barred author interview and Special Relativity, a one-act drama that answers the question: When Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, and J. Edgar Hoover are raised from the dead at an anti-Bush rally, which one wears the dress?

“Bisson is a national treasure!”
—John Crowley, author of Little Big

“Bisson can charm your toes off!”
The Washington Post


fireComing Soon!

Fire on the Mountain

By Terry Bisson

Itʼs 1959 in socialist Virginia. The Deep South is an independent Black nation called Nova Africa. The second Mars expedition is about to touch down on the red planet. And a pregnant scientist is climbing the Blue Ridge in search of her great-great grandfather, a teenage slave who fought with John Brown and Harriet Tubmanʼs guerrilla army.

Long unavailable in the US, published in France as Nova Africa, Fire on the Mountain is the story of what might have happened if John Brownʼs raid on Harperʼs Ferry had succeeded—-and the Civil War had been started not by the slave owners but the abolitionists.

“Bold and provocative! Reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin and Marge Piercy!”

“Visionary! This utopian tale is rendered both believable and desirable!”
Denver Post

“African astronauts land on Mars in the 1950s! Bisson’s approach is original, fleshed with vivid detail and utterly convincing characters...might-have-been history brought stunningly to life!”

“A talent for evoking the joyful, vertiginous experiences of a world at fundamental turning points."
—Publishers Weekly

“You don’t forget Bisson’s characters, even well after you’ve finished his books. His Fire on the Mountain does for the Civil War what Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle did for World War II.”
—George Alec Effinger, winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards for Shrödinger’s Kitten, and author of the Marîd Audran trilogy

“McKinley Cantor and Ward Moore move over! The South has risen again—this time as a brilliantly illuminated black utopia. Terry Bisson’s novel touched my heart, brought tears to my eyes, and kept me thinking about it for days after finishing the book. It’s an astonishing feat of re-writing history into something truly wonderful.”
—Edward Bryant, co-author of Phoenix Without Ashes and winner of two Nebula awards for short stories Stone and gIANTS

If Women Ruled the World

Nothing Would Be Different
By Lisa Jervis
LiP Magazine

The biggest problem with American feminism today is its obsession with women.

Yes, you heard me: It’s time for those of us who care deeply about eliminating sexism within the context of social justice struggles to stop caring so damn much about what women, as a group, are doing. Because a useful, idealistic, transformative progressive feminism is not about women. It’s about gender, and all the legal and cultural rules that govern it, and power—who has it and what they do with it.

A transformative progressive feminism envisions a world that is different from the one we currently inhabit in two major and related ways. Most obviously, this world would be one in which gender doesn’t determine social roles or expected behavior. More broadly, it would also be one in which people are not sacrificed on the altar of profit—which would mean universal health care, living wages, drastically reduced consumption, and an end to the voracious marketing machine that fuels it. The link between these two elements is clear: Both gender and race, as they currently exist, are socially enforced categories that shore up a consumer capitalist system by providing opportunities for both marketing and exploitation.
But much of the contemporary American feminist movement is preoccupied with the mistaken belief—call it femmenism—that female leadership is inherently different from male; that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change; that women are uniquely equipped as a force for action on a given issue; and that isolating feminist work as solely pertaining to women is necessary or even useful.

The influence of femmenist thinking is broadly in evidence today, from casual conversations in which arrogant know-it-alls are described in shorthand terms like “typically male” and “how very boy” to nonprofit groups that exist to promote the leadership of women—any women—in business and politics. It manifests itself in the topics that are considered most central to feminism. The problems feminism should be trying to solve are not caused primarily by a dearth of women with power. The overwhelming maleness of the American population of congressional representatives and physics professors, CEOs and major-newspaper op-ed columnists, is a symptom, sure, of a confluence of economic, political, and cultural forces that devalue women’s work, denigrate our ideas as less important than men’s, and discourage us from aiming high. Would more women in high places signify a change in that? Yeah. And that would be nice.

But any changes would likely be superficial: More women in high-paying corporate jobs might mean that women would finally be making more, on average, than 76 cents to the male dollar, but it would do nothing about the 35.8 million people under the poverty line—and it’s definitely not going to transform the values of profit maximization that keep them there. It wouldn’t even necessarily mean that large numbers of women were being paid wages closer to their male counterparts’. Like the wage gap itself, it would be a symptom of power at work, a signal that women are being allowed more access to the benefits of a destructive value system. If we’re fighting just for that access on behalf of women, without mounting a challenge to it, then feminism is, to borrow a phrase from Barbara Smith, nothing more than female self-aggrandizement.

Furthermore, the most pressing issues facing women worldwide—slave wages, inadequate health care systems, environmental degradation, the endless war and surveillance society of Bush-era neo-conservatism, and rampant corporate profiteering involved in all of the above—are a) no less important to feminists just because they also happen to be the most pressing issues facing men and b) directly related to the particularly ruthless brand of global capitalism we’re currently living under.

This vulture capitalism would not magically disappear if women were in charge of more stuff. Racism would not go away. Hell, sexism itself would probably be alive and kicking. God knows the gender binary would be stronger than ever. In short: The actual workings of power will not change with more chromosomal diversity among the powerful.

Even if, to stick with our example, the wage gap were eliminated through genuine equal pay for equal work, without a radical challenge to the economic system that structures all of our lives, it would most likely mean that men are now being paid as badly as women. (In fact, the narrowing of the wage gap since 1979 can be largely attributed to decreases in men’s wages.) And while that certainly seems fair on its face—if we all have to live under a shitty system, the burdens of shit should at least be shared as equally as possible—as a political goal it’s an admission of defeat.

Let’s take a quick look at some history. Femmenism is an outgrowth of the deeply flawed and largely debunked philosophy of gender essentialism: the belief that biology is destiny and that men and women’s bodily differences translate into universal and unchanging/unchangeable gender roles and traits. Essentialist thought dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, who saw men (of a certain class) as smart, strong, noble citizens and women as unfit to take part in intellectual exchange. Eighteenth-century philosophers laid down the natural law, which dictated that women’s childbearing bodies rendered them natural caretakers and little else. To this effort, scientists at the time contributed their data on things like skull size to confirm women’s lack of intellectual capacity. Similar modes of data interpretation were also useful in “proving” that black people were fit only for the hard physical labor of slavery and that poor immigrant folks’ criminal tendencies were evident in the shapes of their heads. Today’s version of this argument—with the same flaws in evidence and interpretation—comes from the evolutionary psychologists and brain researchers who assert all kinds of neurobiological explanations for supposed gender differences in everything from verbal skills to the propensity to cheat on a partner.

The first feminist activists, the suffragists and temperance women of the 19th and early 20th centuries, sought to use essentialist thinking to their benefit: Women, as the raisers of children and caretakers of home and hearth, had a natural morality that could be brought to bear in politics and against the social ills caused by excessive drinking. Feminist essentialism grew up along with the movement as a whole, as thinkers and activists in the ’60s and ’70s sought much-needed recognition for undervalued “feminine” attributes like cooperation and caretaking and as part of the struggle for gender equality. Feminist essentialism reached full flower in the backlash-laden ’80s, as rigorous intellectual work exploring the behavioral effects of gendered socialization—most famously, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice—was broadly popularized, misinterpreted, and oversimplified as nothing more than a call to reverse the cultural values placed on essential male and female natures. Thus certain political and intellectual circles came to valorize women as inherently nurturing, peaceful, connected to nature, and noncompetitive, and to demonize men as bellicose, unfeeling, and destructive.

It’s important for me to pause for a minute and make a few things crystal clear. First of all: Yes, gender difference exists. Of course men and women often behave differently, see the world differently, and have different political views—when you’ve been raised with sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice expectations and the knowledge that (if you choose to sleep with men) you’re just a broken condom away from a lifelong responsibility, it tends to make you both more empathetic and more likely to favor safe, legal, accessible abortion. Duh. But such differences are neither automatic (as the evolutionary biologists would have us believe) nor universal (as the cultural essentialists assert).

Second of all, the forces I’m referring to as those that have led to the problem of femmenism have been essential to both concrete feminist political gains and to feminism’s intellectual development. I am not at all suggesting it’s unimportant to call attention to the fact that the Senate is only 13% female, to encourage society to recognize the value of women’s unpaid childcare labor, or even to rescue politically neutral traditionally female pursuits like knitting from the pink ghetto.

Acknowledgement and discussion of culturally produced gender differences is essential to dismantling sexism—but the line between acknowledging cultural differences that demand examination and allowing them to persist unchallenged is a fine one indeed. Femmenism crosses it constantly.

And some of those alleged gender differences are easily disproved. If women’s maternal instincts and natural compassion will bring about a kinder, more peaceful world, what’s up with Condoleezza Rice? (It’s also worth noting that Madeleine Albright didn’t exactly transform the Clinton administration’s foreign policy into a bastion of benevolence, either.) If women were truly sympathetic to and cooperative with each other, Ann Coulter’s journalistic achievements would have made the media less misogynist, not more. A woman was in charge of Abu Ghraib when Iraqi prisoners were tortured by American soldiers; three of the seven charged with perpetrating the abuse are female. Inherently nurturing? Sisterly? Yeah. Sure.

More important, however, is that femmenist thinking threatens to drain feminism of progressive politics—and, in many cases, of any politics at all. Take, for example, a 2004 book called If Women Ruled the World. The changes this slim volume predicts would result from such ruling are both serious (“we would all have health care”) and silly (“business would be more fun!”). A few might even be accurate (“equal parenting would be the norm, not the exception”). But they are all assumptions based on a fallacy: that (as the book’s foreword asserts) “empathy, inclusion across lines of authority, relational skills, [and] community focus” are “values that women uniquely bring to the table.” This line of reasoning urges us to forget about forging the argument that our current healthcare system is inhumane, profit-driven, and inefficient. It gives us a pass on making the case for universal healthcare as the best solution to skyrocketing costs and 44 million of us without insurance. We won’t need to do that if we can just get more women in on that ruling-the-world game.

This tactic is taken up by quite a few feminist groups seeking to influence the political landscape. One of these is the White House Project, “a national, non-partisan organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership across sectors and fostering the entry of women into all positions of leadership, including the U.S. presidency.” A female president is a tempting goal to pursue, an important symbol of gender equality, and, yes, someone whose inauguration will surely make me kvell even if I find her policies repugnant. But having a woman in the White House won’t necessarily do a damn thing for progressive feminism. Though the dearth of women in electoral politics is so dire as to make supporting a woman—any woman—an attractive proposition, even if it’s just so she can serve as a role model for others who’ll do the job better eventually, it’s ultimately a trap. Women who do nothing to enact feminist policies will be elected and backlash will flourish. I can hear the refrain now: “They’ve finally gotten a woman in the White House, so why are feminists still whining about equal pay?”

Other groups carry the “if only women ruled the world” belief to a wistful, apolitical extreme. Take the organization (and I use that term loosely) Gather the Women. GTW is “a gathering place for women and women’s organizations who share a belief that the time is now to activate the incredible power of women’s wisdom on a planetary scale.” One of its purported goals is to “celebrate women as global peacemakers.” However, they “seek not to change minds but to connect hearts.” Just how anyone is supposed to be a global peacemaker without trying to change anyone’s mind is never articulated. Then again, neither is anything these folks do, except have an annual conference with panels such as “Divine Goddess and Leadership.”

If the problem were confined to fringe, mushy-thinking non-organizations, it wouldn’t even be worth writing about. But even groups doing effective, important, progressive feminist work often fall prey to essentialist thinking. Code Pink’s Call to Action contradictorily declares that women organize for peace “not because we are better or purer or more innately nurturing than men but because the men have busied themselves making war. Because…we understand the love of a mother in Iraq for her children and the driving desire of that child for life.” Translation: It’s not that women are naturally more nurturing and peaceful than men—it’s that women are naturally more nurturing and peaceful than men.

This covert embrace of essentialist thinking (and the intellectual dishonesty that it requires) manifests in many of Code Pink’s central tactics. One of the group’s major activities has been sending delegations of parents and others close to either 9/11 victims or enlisted folks to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. The delegations have brought humanitarian aid and drawn attention to horrific conditions caused by American military activities. But their very premise—that being a mother of a soldier is the best platform from which to speak out against the war—ensures that the resulting arguments are a plea not to cause unhappiness by sending a kid off to die rather than a principled stance against unjust and corrupt use of force. The former isn’t even a compelling moral argument, much less any kind of a political analysis. And when real political analysis is slipped into a femmenist framework, it’s easily neutered: In a keynote speech at the 2005 Center for New Words Women and Media Conference, Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin detailed the ways in which their peace delegates’ comments to the media were edited to remove commentary critical of the war and of the Bush administration so that only worry over their children remained.

Women’s eNews, a news service that, in the words of its mission statement, “cover[s] issues of particular concern to women and provide[s] women’s perspectives on public policy,” is yet another promising project that would be far more effective if it weren’t thoroughly mired in femmenism. While it is indeed imperative for the news media to recognize women as sources, experts, and commentators more than they currently do, an approach like Women’s eNews’ is patently unhelpful. Its May 9, 2005, cover story is indicative. Headlined “Mothering From Afar Extracts Heavy Price,” and accompanied by introductory text noting that “as a growing number of Latin American women migrate to the US, many of these women will spend the [Mother’s Day] holiday far from their children—some of whom have forgotten them,” the piece does little more than tug at readers’ heartstrings. When Women’s eNews defines “women’s concerns” as Ana and her plans to migrate north to better support her and 8- and 10-year-old sons, but not the underlying political economy that determines her decision to seek work in the US, it actually works to shore up the “feminine” realm of home, hearth, and kids.

Likewise, stories like “Female Dems Say Social Security Is Their Fight,” “Women Pioneer Biofuel to Save Mother Earth,” and “Record Number of Female Soldiers Fall” tightly circumscribe what women are supposed to care about. If Social Security were gender neutral, it would hardly be any less of a women’s issue. It’s not because “we’ve got kids and we are thinking generations ahead of ourselves,” as one of the sources in the biofuels article asserts, that feminists bring an important perspective to the environmental movement. And it’s damn sure not primarily because female soldiers are dying that we should be paying attention to the war.

But the problem with femmenism goes even deeper than these strategic missteps. Because it’s founded on gender difference, it retains a strong investment in gender divisions. Not only will we never dismantle gender discrimination as long as gender divisions are philosophically important to feminism, but we’ll end up reproducing the gendered oppression we’re supposedly fighting against.

Femmenism seeks a circumscribed set of qualities for womanhood the same way that conservative, gender-traditional patriarchy does. Gender conservatives see motherhood as women’s natural role; femmenists see motherhood (or the capacity for it) as the ultimate political motivator. Gender conservatives prefer to see women in the role of helpmate ; femmenists see women as uniquely equipped with superior relational skills. Gender conservatives justify male aggressive behavior by virtue of its being an inherently male character trait; femmenists criticize male aggressive behavior for the same reason. But what about those women (and there are many) who have no interest in parenting, who have crappy communication skills, who would rather compete than cooperate? Are they not women? More to the point, are they bad feminists?

This sort of gender essentialism can be particularly divisive when it comes to women’s and feminist activism, because it polices the boundaries of womanhood; implicitly or overtly, femmenist organizations, groups, and events require a certain degree of “femininity” for participation. Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the tension between certain corners of the feminist world and trans and genderqueer movements. Femmenist thinking practically demands distrust of and even hostility toward gender-variant people. There’s simply no room in a movement overinvested in cherished notions of who women are and how they behave for the myriad gender identities that exist in our world: transsexual women who know they were born as women even if their genitals said otherwise; biologicially butch dykes who prefer male pronouns; intersex folks who choose not to pick a side; and many, many others.

But it’s the obliteration of rigid gender categories themselves, not any kind of elevation of the feminine, that is our best hope for an end to gender discrimination. And the fragmentation of gender that trans and genderqueer folks embody is our best hope for that obliteration. It’s exactly this challenge—the way that transgender and genderqueer movements are forcing us to ask deeper questions about what woman- and manhood are, how femininity and masculinity are defined and determined—that stands to enrich feminist thought and action immeasurably.

In spite of my generalizations, femmenism as I’ve been discussing it here is far from monolithic, and, like feminism as a whole, encompasses people and ideas with disagreement and contradictions aplenty. It includes folks as wide-ranging as liberal feminist organizations such as the White House Project and separatist crowds like those who attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. There are valuable aspects of each of these branches of feminism, and critiquing their femmenist tendencies does not have to mean rejecting everything about them. But it’s equally important to recognize that those femmenist tendencies are deeply antithetical to where feminism needs to go in order to stay effective and vibrant, to eliminate gender discrimination at its core, and to fight for a world where human rights are more important than profit.

If we continue to believe, hope, or even suspect that women, simply because they are women, will bring pro-feminist policies with them into the corridors of power, we will be rewarded with more powerful women in the mold of our aforementioned warmongering secretary of state; anti-choice, anti–civil rights, anti–minimum wage DC Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Janice Rogers Brown; and business-as-usual corporate execs like the women occupying top slots at Avon, Xerox, Citigroup, ChevronTexaco, Pfizer, MTV, Procter & Gamble, Genentech, the New York Times Company, and more. If we allow the fact of our femaleness to motivate our objection to, say, the war on Iraq, we are forced into asserting that a feminist position is one of simple concern for the deaths of civilian women and children. We will have to abandon opposition to the war on more substantively feminist grounds: because it involves killing people in order to support an unsustainable way of life for overentitled Americans and secure profits for the corporations that depend on our energy-guzzling, buy-crazy ways for their revenues.

If we cling to any gender categories at all, we lose out on tremendous liberatory potential. In other words, the half-witted, sentimental obsession with women that is femmenism causes sloppy thinking, intellectual dishonesty, and massive strategic errors. Thanks to the tremendous feminist work of the last century, we have the opportunity to leave that obsession behind. If vital feminist work is going to continue, we need to seize it.

The End of Feminism's Third Wave

The cofounder of Bitch magazine says goodbye to the generational divide
By Lisa Jervis., This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine.


Are you in the third wave?

When did the third wave start?

What's the most important issue to third wavers?

I get asked this a lot — at campus lectures, during radio interviews, at publishing conferences. I hate these questions. There are so many ways to answer, none of them entirely satisfactory.

I always want to pepper my interlocutor with questions instead:

Do you want to know how I identify, or how others would label me? Are you asking when the term was coined? When the first feminists who are considered part of the third wave became politicized? When the first riot grrl zine was published? What makes you think it’s possible to elevate one issue over all others? Which definition of the third wave are we talking about here, the chronological or the ideological?

This reluctance isn’t just me being cranky and not wanting to answer any hard questions. Here is the reality: We’ve reached the end of the wave terminology’s usefulness. What was at first a handy-dandy way to refer to feminism’s history and its present and future potential with a single metaphor has become shorthand that invites intellectual laziness, an escape hatch from the hard work of distinguishing between core beliefs and a cultural moment.

Using the simplest and most straightforward definition, I am, indisputably, a member of the third wave: I was born in 1972, right smack in the demographic that people think about when they think about the third wave. But discussions of the waves are only nominally about demographics. The metaphor wraps up differences in age, ideology, tactics and style, and pretends that distinguishing among these factors is unimportant.

Even the more nuanced discussions of third-wavers tend to cast them (or, given my birthday, should I say “us”?) as sex-obsessed young thangs with a penchant for lip gloss and a disregard for recent history, or sophisticated identity politicians who have moved past the dated concerns of their predecessors.

It’s no mystery why the discourse that has developed around the waves is divisive and oppositional. Writers and theorists love oppositional categories — they make things so much easier to talk about. Similarities are much more difficult. So, naturally, much has been said and written about the disagreements, conflicts, differences and antagonisms between feminists of the second and third waves, while hardly anything is ever said about our similarities and continuities.

The rap goes something like this: Older women drained their movement of sexuality; younger women are uncritically sexualized. Older women won’t recognize the importance of pop culture; younger women are obsessed with media representation. Older women have too narrow a definition of what makes a feminist issue; younger women are scattered and don’t know what’s important.

Stodgy versus frivolous. Won’t share power versus spoiled and ignorant.

Nothing on this list is actually true — but, because this supposedly great generational divide has been constructed out of very flimsy but readily available materials, the ideas persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It’s just so much easier to hit on the playful cultural elements of the third wave and contrast them with the brass-tacks agenda — and impressive gains — of the second wave: It’s become the master narrative of feminism’s progression (or regression, as some see it).

But when has it ever been a good idea to trust a master narrative? After all, the oft-repeated notion among self-described third-wavers that those labeled as hopelessly second-wave reject humor, fashion, sex or anything else that might be fun is just a slightly — and only slightly — more nuanced and polite version of the stone-faced, hairy-legged manhater whom we all know to be a myth that originated in the sexist culture at large and was cultivated and amplified by conservative, antifeminist and/or just plain clueless journalists and pundits.

The image of the frivolous young pseudofeminist has the same provenance. Take Time’s infamous June 29, 1998, cover story “Is Feminism Dead?,” for instance. In lambasting young women for being more interested in celebrity than the wage gap and seeing vibrators as more important than protests, writer Ginia Bellafante had to carefully ignore the vibrant anti-sweatshop movement spawning on college campuses at the time, or organizations like the Third Wave Foundation,, SOUL, Home Alive or many of the other activist projects founded and run by women born in the ’70s and after.

When feminists engage in this kind of nuance-deprived conflation of age and ideology, we’re doing little more than reinscribing the thoroughly debunked notion that we need to agree with each other all the time.

As we all know, feminism has always held within it multitudes of ideologies, tactics and priorities. The movement’s two current generations have come to be painted as internally monolithic, but they are each as diverse philosophically as feminism itself — they have to be; they are feminism itself.

There are elements of both that are playful and take pop culture as both their medium and their subject matter: The 1968 Miss America protests defined the very start of the second wave, and their lineage extends to guerrilla theater groups like Ladies Against Women in the ’80s and the Radical Cheerleaders today.

There are elements of both that are relentlessly — and appropriately — serious: Combating rape and domestic violence was a key issue 35 years ago; its importance has not changed. Affordable, accessible child care is no less a concern now than it was in the ’70s.

Chronologically thirdwave publications such as Feminista! share their ideologies about pornography and sex work with Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. The riot grrls groups that sprang up in the early ’90s have clear connections to consciousness-raising groups. Last April’s hugely successful and inspiring March for Women’s Lives was intergenerational in both planning and attendance.

There’s certainly no shortage of disagreements both large and small within feminism. There are those who see transgender folks as interlopers in feminist spaces, and those who see genderqueers as the frontline soldiers against sexist systems of power.

There are those who would like to see “feminine” values replace “masculine” values as the defining characteristics of our society, and those who reject the very notion that these values have any gender apart from what’s been assigned by a sexist culture.

There are those who see gender as the overarching factor that shapes women’s oppression, and those who think that raising the minimum wage would achieve more feminist goals in one fell swoop than any other single act.

The issues motivating both sides of the ’80s sex wars are very much still with us. Even if some views are more common among one generation than another, at their roots these are ideological disagreements — but they can’t be discussed productively while in disguise as generational issues. That disguise keeps us distracted from the real work before the movement today.

Here’s what we all need to recognize so that we can move on: Those in their 20s and 30s who don’t see their concerns reflected in the feminism of their elders are ignorant of history; those in their 50s and beyond who think that young women aren’t politically active — or active enough, or active around the right issues — don’t know where to look.

We all want the same thing: To borrow bell hooks’ phrase, we want gender justice.

We may not all agree on exactly what it looks like or how to get it. We should never expect to agree. Feminism has always thrived on and grown from internal discussions and disagreements. Our many different and often opposing perspectives are what push us forward, honing our theories, refining our tactics, driving us toward a more thorough dismantling of the white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy (to borrow another phrase from hooks).

I want to see these internal disagreements continue. I want to see as much wrangling over them as ever. But I want them articulated accurately. And that means recognizing the generational divide for what it is — an illusion.

Written by Lisa Jervis. This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine.

Lisa Jervis is the cofounder and publisher of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture and the editor at large of LiP: Informed Revolt. This piece is adapted from a speech given at the 2004 conference of the National Women's Studies Association.

Tenacious: Art and Writing From Women in Prison

An interview with Vikki Law from New York, United States.
Grassroots Feminism Blog
February 2009

Tenacious zine started in 2003 after Vikki Law was approached as an outside publisher and co-editor by women incarcerated in Oregon; they needed a self-determined forum for female prisoners' voices after the mainstream media kept ignoring their proposals. Vikki wrote a piece called "Incarcerated Women Create Their Own Media" for the feminist magazine, Off Our Backs, detailing this background, and recently published a book entitled Resistance Behind Bars from her involvement in prisoner support and incarcerated women's struggles. An interview with Vikki on the role that zines play in movements for social change, and the importance of striving for liberation for all in freedom, not equality for some in injustice.

Off Our Back article, ""Incarcerated Women Create Their Own Media",

Can you introduce yourself?

I just turned 32 years old. I was born and raised in Queens, one of the 5 boroughs of NYC. I now live in the city itself, in a rapidly-changing neighborhood called the Lower East Side. I’m the proud parent of a 8-year-old daughter named Siu Loong (which is Cantonese for “little dragon” since she was born in the Year of the Dragon). [Read Vikki's interview about zines, radical parenting, and how to support parents in your activist scene here]

Can you tell our readers about Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison ?

It’s a collection of articles, essays, poetry and art by formerly and currently incarcerated women across the United States. Their works cover subjects like the health care (or lack of health care) system, being HIV-positive inside prison, trying to get an education while in prison, sexual harassment by prison staff and general prison conditions, and giving up children for adoption - in the U.S., if a child is in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state automatically terminates the parent’s legal rights. Many women in prison have sentences far exceeding 15 months AND the majority of them were single parents before entering prison.

The idea for Tenacious actually came from several women incarcerated in Oregon. However, people inside prisons do not have access to printers, copy machines, massive amounts of postage and all the stuff that we zinesters on the outside may take for granted. So they approached me and asked if I would be the outside publisher. How could I say no? That was in 2003 and I’ve just finished Issue #16.

Can you tell us about the process of how the zine articles and drawings make it from the women in prison to yourself? Do they get censored by the prison authorities on the way out?

The women write (or, occasionally, type) their articles and mail them to me. Some women in federal prisons have access to e-mail and have been able to e-mail me their writings. E-mail seems to be more easily censored by the prison authorities - both women who have used this medium have reported that they have been told by staff members that they shouldn't be writing about such issues. In one case, the woman's e-mail access was taken away and she was threatened with being placed in the SHU (Special Housing Unit or solitary confinement). In the other case, the woman was threatened with having her furlough (a shortperiod of time - usually 36 to 48 hours that she can spend outside the prison with her
family) taken away. This is also true with snail mail, but I think that mailroom staff are a lot less likely to read each and every letter coming through (whereas with e-mail, a computer program can probably pull out words and phrases that might be seen as "threatening to the safety and security of the institution." (This is the actual phrasing that prisons use to justify banning reading material). In one case, in a state prison in Oregon, a woman was trying to send out a drawing that depicted a female prisoner who had obviously just been sexually assaulted. In the background of a drawing, one could see the back of a correctional officer (the euphemistic term for "prison guard" here in the United States) walking away. The mailroom confiscated the drawing and she received several visits from prison administrators about that drawing.

I have never heard of a prison administration encouraging the zine. One woman said that, when she was in the county jail, she would share the zine with one of the guards who liked it. In some cases, the prison has censored the zine. In Oregon, after I published an article about guards harassing a lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation,that particular issue was banned.

Obviously the zine has tremendous importance both for the women contributing, and in raising awareness of the issues to the readers outside. Has the zine been used in any way to challenge prison conditions,or to further advocate for the women? If it hasn't, do you think there isthe potential for this self-made media to achieve this?

In one instance, I know that an article by a woman incarcerated in Oregon inspired members of the (now-defunct) prisoner rights group Break the Chains! to organize a letter-writing campaign to the warden to stop the harassment against her. I can't recall any other instances in which something in the zine directly sparked outside activism/agitation. I think that there is definitely the potential for the zine to spark MORE advocacy/challenging of conditions.

What do you do alongside editing the zine?

I write about issues affecting incarcerated women and their acts of resistance and collective organizing to challenge these conditions. I correspond with roughly a dozen women incarcerated across the country. Often, they tell me stories of their lives, both past and present; sometimes they ask me to look up resources for them since prisoners do not have web access. I also send them news about the outside, often news of resistance (like the recent protests around the invasion of Gaza or the recent sex workers’ march in Washington, DC), or sometimes just more mainstream news that they don’t have access to because they are in solitary confinement. I’ve spent the past year working on a book about incarcerated women’s resistance and organizing, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, and now I suppose I’ll spend the next year organizing book events!

What do you hope can be accomplished through your DIY projects?

With Tenacious , I wanted to help give incarcerated women an outlet for their stories and experiences. At the time, I didn’t see any media devoted solely to their issues and experiences. I think it’s raised awareness among people who do prisoner support and prisoner rights work for men; women haven’t really been seen by many of these activists. At the same time, having it in zine format has also raised awareness among people in the zine community. I read a zine about a young woman’s choice to give her baby up for adoption; I’d printed a story of a young woman of roughly the same age who was arrested early during her pregnancy and wrestled with what would be best for her baby given that she was serving a long prison sentence. She finally decided upon adoption. I sent that copy of Tenacious to her (the woman on the outside who had given her baby up for adoption). She wrote me back and said that she’d been very moved, not only by the story of adoption but by all the stories in Tenacious. Before I’d sent her that zine, she had never really thought about prison issues, let alone the existence of women in prison.

What else do you love about zines? Are there any aspects you find challenging or limiting in the zine community?

I love the physicality of zines. I love the fact that you can hold them in your hands and that they come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. I love that you can carry them along anywhere and pass them along. A couple of years ago, a friend returned from Argentina and pretty much came straight from the airport to the NYC Anarchist Bookfair where China (who does the zine The Future Generation ) and I were tabling our zines. She swooped in, gave me a hug and handed me some punk parenting zines from Buenos Aires! And those zines built connections between me and some political punk parents in Argentina, connections that I would never have made through other media like blogs (since my ability to read and write in Spanish isn’t great, I don’t seek out Spanish-language blogs and so, if the information and network was in that format, I never would have come across it).

I do get frustrated sometimes, not so much by the overwhelming whiteness of the zine scene (perhaps because I do not frequent things like zine readings and zine events), but by the unwillingness of a lot of white zinesters to address their racial biases or stereotyping in their zines. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of those particular zinesters and I’m not advocating that all zines have an element of deconstructing whiteness and racism in it, but c’mon! I thought the zine subculture was supposed to be more open to introspection and other voices, not replicating mainstream views (like all Puerto Ricans who own pitbulls breed them to be nasty fighting dogs). I find it hard to enjoy a zine after I come across one or two racial stereotypes in what might otherwise be an interesting read. I’m not sure how much of this irritation stems from my being a woman of color in a zine scene that is probably predominantly white (although truthfully, because I try not to put myself in subculture spaces that are predominantly white these days, I’m more than a bit insulated from that reality and everything that goes with it).

Do you consider feminist zines as part of a social movement? Do you think feminist zines can effect meaningful social and political change at large - or do they have significance mainly in individual lives?

That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about zines in that context before. I think that feminist zines are a good tool as part of social movements. For instance, even in the age of blogs and the widespread use of the Internet, there are populations of women who are cut out of the information loop. Incarcerated women are one such population. Zines and magazines can, to some limited extent, get into the prisons and raise awareness about issues and ideas that they may not have thought of otherwise. I’ve had women in their twenties ask me to send them information about feminism because they don’t know much about it or they have always seen it as a white, middle-class issue and since the majority of those in prison are not white, middle-class folks, they didn’t relate to these ideas or issues while on the outside. Women have also told me that they’ve shared the material I’ve sent them—about feminism, politics, ideas surrounding prison abolition and the question “what do we do if we don’t have prisons?”, etc.—with the other women around them. In some prisons, it’s sparked discussions among women about ideas around patriarchy, sexism, the necessity of speaking out, etc.

I’m not sure if, at this point, zines have the same potential to effect meaningful social and political change that they might have had years ago, before the explosion of on-line, instant information and a growing lack of interest in printed matter. At the same time, though, I wouldn’t discount the possibility altogether. In 1979, after the murders of several black women in Boston and indifference from both the police and black male leaders in the community, a black feminist group called the Combahee River Collective wrote and distributed a pamphlet called “Six Black Women: Why Did They Have to Die?” The pamphlet (which today we might see as more of a one-off zine, but back then the word didn’t exist and so all historical documentation refers to it as a pamphlet) analyzed the murders as a result of the racism and sexism that devalued black women’s lives. The pamphlet galvanized diverse groups, including women from the larger white feminist community and black church groups, to begin recognizing, discussing and working around the issue and continues to influence women of color-led groups and collectives working around violence against women issues today.

Do you see yourself as part of a “DIY” or “Third Wave Feminism” movement today?

At this point, not really. I definitely wouldn’t call myself an “anti-feminist,” but I think that the term “feminism” still seems pretty loaded with white, middle class values (at least here in the u.s.) that I don’t feel all that comfortable using that term for myself, esp. as a woman of color who does not aspire to anything resembling middle class. I understand that there are women like bell hooks and Gloria Anzuldua who identify as part of Third Wave feminism, but recent conflicts between feminist organizations that are primarily white and women of color (both individuals and groups), such as the recent nastiness between the editors of Seal Press (a u.s. feminist publishing house) and women of color bloggers who called them out on publishing a racist cartoon on the cover of one of their books about feminism, have made me even more reluctant to see myself as part of a movement that includes women like that who refuse to acknowledge, let alone challenge, their own ingrained racism and racist practices.

What are the most pressing issues for you in daily life?

In daily life as opposed to broader, over-arching goals? Survival, getting through the day as a parent and a woman of color and someone actively involved in social change work and organizations (and trying not to burn myself out) …Well, not just getting through the day and basic survival (as in food, working to pay the bills, etc.) but also getting through the day in ways that are also meaningful and nourishing to me…When I have time to read a book or go outside and photograph something new and interesting or work on one of my projects, that is a good day. When I spend the entire day doing mindless wage-work and don’t have any time for ME, that is a bad, soul-sucking day. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. How do you think society might be re-thought and transformed to be a safer, more equitable place for women, grrrls, transgender and queer folks?

Wow, that’s a fairly broad question. I think one of the things that is long overdue is that people have to acknowledge how society is still a patriarchy that puts down women in all different ways. Even people in so-called progressive movements refuse to see how this plays out, whether it be in body image or standards of beauty or woman-unfriendly practices like doubting women (or grrrls or trans or queer folks) when they say that they’ve been sexually assaulted or not holding known sexual assailants accountable or at least making them unwelcome in the spaces that we have created (be they temporary spaces, like one-off music shows someplace, or more permanent places like our community centers). Just because it’s the 21st century *should* mean that these forms of gender oppression have faded into obscurity, but they haven’t and I think that people need to acknowledge that and work towards abolishing these things. If I have to explain to someone how x, y and z still occur and oppress women and that person refuses to get it and argues back with me about how the “patriarchy” doesn’t exist and it’s all in my head, well, what does that say about our ability to rethink, let along transform, the world into a safer, better place for those who aren’t at the top of the power structure?

I also think that we have to avoid these equality traps that end up making things harder for us. From what I understand, in the 1970s, childcare and access to safe and affordable childcare was considered a feminist issue. Somehow, in the 1980s, this got dropped and feminism was re-interpreted to be that women could be just as cutthroat and ruthless as men in capitalist societies. How is that safer or better for women, grrrls, trans and queer people and even men who don’t fit into the dominant perception of what a man should be? We have to realize that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Here’s an example of an equality law that ended up with terrible repercussions for women at the lowest rung of the power ladder: In the u.s., the 1964 Civil Rights legislation mandated equal opportunity for employment, including the right for women to work in male prisons (of which there were and still are many more than women's prisons). Conversely, men were (and still are) allowed to work in women's prisons, leading, in some states, to rampant sexual abuse of women in prison by male staff members. So passing legislation that made gender irrelevant to employment benefited women who had previously been barred from working in male prisons but also opened the door for men to be placed in roles of absolute power and access in women’s prisons. And the number of instances of male staff members sexually harassing, abusing and assaulting incarcerated women is alarmingly high. Obviously, this move towards equality did not make society safer for women, grrrls, trans or queer folks.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be looking for equality for all people. I was at the Zapatista Womyn’s Encuentro last December (2007) and spent hours listening to the Zapatista women talk about their lives before and after joining the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional or Zapatista National Liberation Army). Before, girls weren’t allowed to go to school and many weren’t even taught Spanish, but kept monolingual (for many indigenous in Chiapas, Mexico, Spanish is their second language) so that they were easier to control. Many had no say over whom they married or how many children they had. If they worked for a landowner, they were subject to sexual abuse. To be born female was to be born without rights. Many of the older women who spoke still cannot read or write; they were never given the opportunity to learn. But in the Zapatista communities now, both boys AND girls have the right to go to school and to learn. There were two 9-year-old girls who got up and spoke about the fact that now they have the right to play (girls often weren’t even allowed out of the house to play! They were supposed to follow their mothers and help them with chores from when they woke to when they went to sleep) and to go to school. They spoke before an auditorium of thousands of people and their words moved everyone.

I’m telling you this little side story to illustrate that I’m not against fighting for equality, but we have to be careful to look at what kind of equality we’re asking for. Are we asking for the right to be equally oppressive/oppressed or are we looking for liberation?

Thanks so much for this interview! Readers, please support this project by buying Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women from an independent book seller or info shop (or anywhere really).

Buy book now

Vikki Law
Red Chidgey & Elke Zobl
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