Archive | March, 2012

Women’s History Month 2012: Tracy Chapman

30 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate a woman who fights for social justice with her music and her activism. Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, OH, in 1964. She was raised by her single mother; despite not having much money, her mother recognized Tracy’s love of music and bought her a ukulele when she was just three. She began playing guitar and writing songs at the age of eight. Surprisingly, she says that she may have been first inspired to play the guitar by the television show Hee Haw. She was accepted into the program “A Better Chance”, which helps minority students attend private schools. She graduated from Wooster School in Connecticut and subsequently attended Tufts University, where she received a BA in anthropology and African studies.

Chapman burst onto the national consciousness with her powerful debut album, simply named Tracy Chapman. Released on Elektra records in 1988, this powerful set of eleven songs mixed her amazing musical sensibility with her demand for justice. While most famous for the hit Fast Car, the album is perhaps most fully realized in the quiet rage of its opener, Talkin”Bout A Revolution. The album was a smash, hitting #1 on the Billboard charts. Chapman received an amazing seven Grammy nominations and won three: Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best Female Pop Vocal (for Fast Car). It was ranked #10 in Rolling Stone‘s 100 Best Albums of the 80s and #261 in the magazine’s list of 500 Best Albums of all time.

Her work since then has been equally powerful, matched by her activism and voice for social justice. She has been a force for education and human rights, working for Amnesty International and other organizations. She also works for AIDS research and quietly supports LGBT causes. While she is open about being a lesbian (and once dated Alice Walker), she tries to maintain a balance between her public persona and personal life. In recognition of her social activism, Tufts awarded her an honorary PhD in Fine Arts in 2004. Chapman sums up her work nicely in her own words:

I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to do my work and be involved in certain organizations, certain endeavors, and offered some assistance in some way. Whether that is about raising money or helping to raise awareness, just being another body to show some force and conviction for a particular idea. Finding out where the need is – and if someone thinks you’re going to be helpful, then helping.

What a powerful example of the difference one person can make. As we celebrate her 48th birthday today, please enjoy one of her finest songs, Give Me One Reason.

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Women’s History Month 2012: Elaine Showalter

29 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate a pioneering writer, literary critic, feminist, and observer of popular culture. Born in 1941 in Boston, Elaine Showalter received her BA from Bryn Mawr, her masters from Brandeis, and her PhD from UC Davis. She taught at Rutgers until accepting a faculty position at Princeton from which she retired in 2003.

Showalter is a specialist in Victorian literature and the Fin-de-Siecle. Her most innovative work in this field is in madness and hysteriain literature, specifically in women’s writing and in the portrayal of female characters. She is the Avalon Foundation Professor Emerita. Her academic honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1977–78) and a Rockefeller Humanities fellowship (1981–82). She is also the past-president of the Modern Language Association (MLA).

She is also a pioneer in the field of feminist literary criticism. Showalter coined the term ‘gynocritics’ to describe literary criticism based in a feminine perspective. Probably the best description Showalter gives of gynocritics is in Toward a Feminist Poetics:

In contrast to [an] angry or loving fixation on male literature, the program of gynocritics is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories. Gynocritics begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture.

She has constructed a frame of three phases of women’s literature and recommends criticism and reading of literature through the lens of the phase in which it was written.

Because she is also comfortable discussing popular culture (having written for People and Vogue among other), Showalter is frequently consulted as an expert who can boil complex theory in to approachable mainstream concepts. She is particularly adept at skewering the overly masculinized concept of the “Great American Novel” as she does in this article which traces the success of a number of powerful American women writers.

Outspoken and sometimes controversial, Elaine Showalter is a great example of the kind of intellectual leadership that pushes an egalitarian agenda that we need in America today.

Women’s History Month 2012: Wendie Malick

28 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate actress and activist Wendie Malick. Born in 1950 in Buffalo, NY, Malick graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and began a career in modelling. She did some political volunteering and then began to focus on her acting career. Understanding the value of her public persona, Malick has focused on the power of bringing light to people’s lives.

I think people underestimate the benefits of laughter.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve come to be very proud of the work I do, because I know how much I value the people who make me laugh before I go to sleep at night, and I know that without Jon Stewart, the world would be a far more difficult place to live in.

She is also a vigorous advocate for many causes. She has spent most of her adult life on Planned Parenthood’s Board of Advocates. She is also concerned with body image and self esteem issues for women. Speaking about those issues and how they play out on her smash sitcom,Hot In Cleveland, she observes:

But what I do think we’ve lost in our culture, and it’s the complete opposite of what our characters do, is embracing this stage in our lives and owning our experience. I think it’s funny because when we first did this show, [show creator] Suzanne [Martin] kept talking about how we’re the late 40-something women.  But I said, ‘Let me play my age. Let me turn 60.’ It’s important to remind women out there that you don’t have to crawl under a rock  at any given age. Also, obesity, which we are dealing with. Now the ways we deal with these issues are as quasi idiots. These are serious problems that we tackle in a comedic way.

Malick is also very involved with PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, passions she shares with co-star Betty White. She has testified before Congress about animal cruelty. Wendie Malick is a woman who is happy being herself and finds pleasure in bringing joy to others. How nice to see a star who is so engaged in social justice!

Women’s History Month 2012: Sonia Shah

27 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate an investigative journalist who pursues corporate abuse and demands human rights. Sonia Shah was born in New York City in 1969; both of her parents were immigrants from India. She shuttled between the two countries since her parents both had medical practices in Mumbai. She attended Oberlin College and received a BA in journalism, philosophy, and neuroscience. She quickly began a career in journalism and developed a reputation as a keen observer and a fierce pursuer of the truth.

Shah’s first two books were anthologies that she edited, including the powerful and influential Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire.

Asian American feminism is a political hybrid linking very different cultures. We all share the same rung on the racial hierarchy and on the gender hierarchy. We must explore and articulate the contradictions faced by Asian American feminists trying to empower women while respecting cultural traditions.

Her latest book, The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years, is based on five years of original reportage in Cameroon, Malawi, Panama and elsewhere. Her 2006 drug industry exposé, The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients, has been hailed by Publishers Weekly as “a tautly argued study…a trenchant exposé…meticulously researched and packed with documentary evidence, reminiscent of the Tuskegee experiments.” Both draw on her background in science and her strong journalistic prose. The common theme throughout her work is one of social justice, emphasizing the ways that corporate power abuses the most helpless people. Shah has certainly earned a remarkable reputation for social justice and standing up for those that are marginalized.

Women’s History 2012: Helen Reddy

26 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate the woman who wrote and sang the unofficial anthem of Second Wave Feminism, the talented Helen Reddy. Reddy, a social justice activist, was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1941, she was part of a long-standing Australian business family. Her immediate family, however, were actors, singers, and performers, and she began touring with them at the age of four. Her teenage rebellion took the form of an early marriage and an attempt at domestic stability. When the brief marriage ended, she found herself a single mother and returned to singing to support her small family. She won a contest that she thought signed her to Mercury records and moved with her daughter to New York, only to find that she’d won the chance to audition; Mercury rejected her.

Still feeling that her chances of success were better in the U.S., Reddy undertook a performing career. For the better part of five years she eked out a modest living. She met her second husband, agent Jeff Wald, at a party friends were throwing to help raise money for her rent. They moved to Los Angeles where Wald found initial success managing other acts. When Helen insisted he turn his energies back to her career, he went at it full force and eventually landed her a contract with Capitol Records, where she would stay for the most successful run of her career.

A life-long feminist, Reddy wanted to record a song about the power of the movement. As she noted in an interview,

I was looking for songs that reflected the positive sense of self that I felt I’d gained from the women’s movement. I couldn’t find any. All I could find were these awful songs like “I am woman and you are man, I am weak so you can be stronger than.” So I realized the song I was looking for didn’t exist and I was going to have to write it for myself.

Fortunately, her inspiration and dedication resulted in the now iconic I am Woman.  She recorded an initial version of the song for her first album but wasn’t satisfied with it. When producer Mike Frankovich asked to use the song I am Woman in his film Stand Up and Be Counted, Reddy took the opportunity to add another verse, tighten up the lyrics, and re-record the song. She gave Frankovich the license to use the song in exchange for him donating money to Women’s Centers in LA, New York, and Chicago. The new version was a major hit, going to #1 in December 1972 (her first of three chart-toppers).  When the United Nations declared that 1975 was “The Year of the Woman” they chose I am Woman as its theme.

Even though she’d been warned that such forthright feminism might kill her career, she never hesitated. Her bravery was rewarded with a decade-long run on the charts that make her one of the most successful Australians on the Hot 100. She also managed a successful acting career and never abandoned the activism that helped launch her success.

A dual citizen, she lived mostly in California until recently. She served as the state’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for three years. She has now retired from live performances and returned to Australia. She remains active in civil rights and advocacy. The recommended reading list on her website is a feast of progressive politics and social activism. She  now practices as a clinical hypnotherapist and motivational speaker, building on a lifetime of serving as an inspiration.  I must confess this was and remains one of my favorite albums of all time.  In fact, it was the first album I bought for my husband when we were dating. If you don’t own a copy of this, I strongly encourage to you buy it.

Women’s History Month 2012: Gloria Steinem

25 Mar

I have to say that Gloria Steinem is one of the reasons why I wanted to become a social worker.  What better day to recognize her than on her 78th birthday.  On her birthday I would like to honor and pay tribute to Gloria Steinem. Steinem is an icon of social justice for women, the LGBT community,  the disenfranchised and all marginalized populations. Steinem has dedicated her life to creating a level playing field for women, while at the same time embracing and working on issues for all marginalized peoples. In my humble opinion, Seinem’s voice is one of the most important in the 20th and 21st Centuries. My first reading of Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, spoke to me as a gay man and how institutionalized oppression can take its toll and how we must unite to speak our own truth. As most of you know, Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine and helped a culture learn about the power of words: Miss, Mrs. and Ms. I have heard Ms. Steinem speak three times and each time I left in awe and inspired. I don’t understand any of her detractors, for she speaks with such love and compassion. Listening to Steinem, one realized how fully she understands deep rooted patriarchy, misogyny, and oppression. I dare say, her detractors have never heard her speak, nor have ever read anything she has written. Yes, she supports a woman’s right to govern her own body–a controversy that would not exist if there were legislation trying to control what men could do with their bodies. I applaud Gloria Steinem for her courage and for her contributions to social justice, she encourages and inspires us all to understand more about the intersections of oppression.  Happy Birthday!

The Time Has Come: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

24 Mar

Ban Ki-moon, a true leader!

Thank you to my friends Allison and Mary for inspiring me to write this post. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon posted a phenomenal video underscoring the needs for civil rights around the world for the LGBT community.  He pulls no punches and calls out bad behavior.  His speech is awe inspiring and shows true leadership!  Now if the Democratic Party could show the same courage and integrity as the United Nations Secretary General and take a stand for human rights, as recommended by Elizabeth Warren. Click here to see the video of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

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