Sandra Tsing Loh on Female Power

Funny woman Sandra Tsing Loh had another timeless column in The Atlantic, this one about the lack of women in positions of power.

Still, she thought there were other ways for women to change the world:

Given the apparent female neuroendocrinic aversion to competitive, winner-take-all activities like elections, unless testosterone shots become a new female norm, even democracy (thanks, Founding Fathers!), with its boastful, chest-beating campaigning, is clearly stacked against female candidates. (Now a monarchy, on the other hand, we could do. Instead of England’s Elizabeths, let’s throw in our own version of royalty like, who, some Kennedy women? Surely Oprah will know whom to choose. And while we’re making wish lists, for the betterment of our planet and our communities I suggest, à la Waring, that we move immediately, on a global level, to a moneyless, relationship-based barter system.)

Barring such fantasies, we should learn to better organize our crowding. Today, the Barnes & Noble “Women’s Studies“ shelves are thick with books on women’s self-esteem, on women’s bodies, on women and money. But to exert more true power in the world, we need to pay less attention to our feelings, our clitorises, and even our 401(k)s. Why in five decades of modern feminist writing have we never seen any serious consideration of, for instance, the PTA, a hugely powerful, 100-plus-year-old, women-founded and women-dominated organization, whose well-funded and effective lobbying arm can actually help push through legislation? The women’s movement has ignored millions of PTA women—women busy baking brownies and zooming about in their Kohl’s wear, who can’t rule the world but who can change it. My fellow PTA mothers—“change agents“ all—we need more books that teach us to build and direct our networks to do the work we value. Women, that is, need more books on how to organize a bus.

I do want to point out to Loh that there are moms — and dads — online organizing and raising money for political causes and candidates, including women. We are not all perusing the self-help books at Barnes & Noble.


The Atlantic on Transgender Children

The Atlantic easily had the most comprehensive story to date on transgender children. Besides the fascinating history of studies, psychology and politics surrounding the transgender community, the magazine reported on the latest development of younger and younger children being identified by their parents as transgender and given hormone blockers to become the other sex.

Transsexualism is far less common than homosexuality, and the research is in its infancy. Scattered studies have looked at brain activity, finger size, familial recurrence, and birth order. One hypothesis involves hormonal imbalances during pregnancy. In 1988, researchers injected hormones into pregnant rhesus monkeys; the hormones seemed to masculinize the brains but not the bodies of their female babies. “Are we expecting to find some biological component [to gender identity]?“ asks Vilain. “Certainly I am. But my hunch is, it’s going to be mild. My hunch is that sexual orientation is probably much more hardwired than gender identity. I’m not saying [gender identity is] entirely determined by the social environment. I’m just saying that it’s much more malleable.“

Vilain has spent his career working with intersex patients, who are born with the anatomy of both sexes. He says his hardest job is to persuade the parents to leave the genitals ambiguous and wait until the child has grown up, and can choose his or her own course. This experience has influenced his views on parents with young transgender kids. “I’m torn here. I’m very ambivalent. I know [the parents] are saying the children are born this way. But I’m still on the fence. I consider the child my patient, not the parents, and I don’t want to alleviate the anxiety of the parents by surgically fixing the child. We don’t know the long-term effects of making these decisions for the child. We’re playing God here, a little bit.“

Even some supporters of hormone blockers worry that the availability of the drugs will encourage parents to make definitive decisions about younger and younger kids. This is one reason why doctors at the clinic in the Netherlands ask parents not to let young children live as the other gender until they are about to go on blockers. “We discourage it because the chances are very high that your child will not be a transsexual,“ says Cohen-Kettenis. The Dutch studies of their own patients show that among young children who have gender-identity disorder, only 20 to 25 percent still want to switch gender at adolescence; other studies show similar or even lower rates of persistence.

This is what most stood out to me about this article: In some cases, it appears that parents want to choose the gender of their children to reassure themselves they are not homosexual. In fact, one of the families interviewed for this article lives in a small southern town and is convinced their son is transgender. They attended a conference for transgender children and are willing to let their son dress and act like a girl. But the stepfather flipped out when he saw a gay couple making out at the conference.

Catherine Tuerk, who runs the support group for parents in Washington, D.C., started out as an advocate for gay rights after her son came out, in his 20s. She has a theory about why some parents have become so comfortable with the transgender label: “Parents have told me it’s almost easier to tell others, ‘My kid was born in the wrong body,’ rather than explaining that he might be gay, which is in the back of everyone’s mind. When people think about being gay, they think about sex—and thinking about sex and kids is taboo.“

Tuerk believes lingering homophobia is partly responsible for this, and in some cases, she may be right. When (southern stepdad) Bill saw two men kissing at the conference, he said, “That just don’t sit right with me.“ In one of Zucker’s case studies, a 17-year-old girl requesting cross-sex hormones tells him, “Doc, to be honest, lesbians make me sick … I want to be normal.“ In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death, but sex-change operations are legal—a way of normalizing aberrant attractions.

Overall, though, Tuerk’s explanation touches on something deeper than latent homophobia: a subconscious strain in American conceptions of childhood. You see it in the hyper- vigilance about “good touch“ and “bad touch.“ Or in the banishing of Freud to the realm of the perverse. The culture seems invested in an almost Victorian notion of childhood innocence, leaving no room for sexual volition, even in the far future.

This is a perspective I have never read anywhere and I found the homophobia — even in families with transgender children — eye-opening. Anyways, this article is a page-turner.


Friday Open Thread

We the editors at MotherTalkers have been playing with the scheduling of stories. In an effort to give you reasons to come to the site throughout the day, we have upped our posting times from four times a day to five times a day. We are adding another little twist, starting tonight.

At 9 p.m. ET, we will post our first ever “Late-Night Liberty” column, which will replace the occasional “MT Diversion” column on hobbies, entertainment and other guilty pleasures. We plan to run the column every night Monday through Friday. Please join us!

In other news: Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the D.C. public school system who is employing every tool at her disposal, including vouchers and charter schools, was profiled by Time magazine and The Atlantic.

Update on our Round Peg Inna Square Hole: It appears that both kids have minor heart defects, which I was sorry to hear. But I am looking forward to seeing the family for “Little Monkey’s” first birthday later this month. I will make sure to post pictures.

In other MT health news: Our Janetle just completed her final round of chemotherapy for colon cancer, she wrote at her blog Mukilteo Musings. She is in pain, but grateful for the TLC she is receiving from her husband and children.

Our Mara over at the Mother of All Trips wrote about her preference to stay home for the holidays. (I agree!) Also, she shared with readers her Advent ritual, which sounds lovely.

A feel good story: A Virginia businessman rented out a $1 million Marriott hotel package to host an inauguration party for disadvantaged people, including low-income, disabled, wounded soldiers and people just down on their luck, according to the Washington Post.

Via Salon: Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell apologized for this comment he made about Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was picked by Obama to head the Department of Homeland Security: “Janet’s perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it.” Also in Salon: There is a heated discussion at the Broadsheet blog on when gold digging is actually prostitution.

In celebrity gossip break: It’s K-Fed’s turn to tell his story in this whole Britney saga, which is like a train wreck I can’t stop watching. (Help!) Here is an excerpt of the interview he gave People magazine.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Moving Essay On Obama’s Grandparents

I found this moving essay on Sen. Barack Obama’s white grandparents in Daddy Dialectic. Written by The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the essay draws attention to the quiet courage of Obama’s grandparents who poured everything they had into him, despite a turbulent period in our history when interracial relationships and biracial babies were frowned upon.

But now, more than anyone, I am thinking of Barack Obama’s grandparents. One of the big mistakes we make when we look at the history of race in this country is to focus on big people and big events. What should be remembered is that, though our racial history is mired in utter disgrace, though the deep cowardice of post-reconstruction haunts us into the 21st century, at any point on the timeline, you can find ordinary white people doing the right thing. Frederick Douglass, himself a biracial black man, is a hero of mine. But arguably more heroic, is Helen Pitts, his second wife–a white woman, who traced her history back to the Mayflower, whose ancestors founded Richmond Township, NY, and who was cast out for marrying Douglass. Here is a white woman who spent the best years of her life fighting for suffrage and racial justice. After Douglass died, she dedicated the rest of her life to seeing him honored, when everyone else was on the verge of forgetting. Please read up on her. She was the truth.

Likewise, I was looking at this picture of Obama’s grandparents and thinking how much he looks like his grandfather. And suddenly, for whatever reason, I was struck by the fact that they had made the decision to love their daughter, no matter what, and love their grandson, no matter what. I’d bet money that they never even thought of themselves as courageous, that they didn’t give much thought to the broader struggles in the the world at the time. They were just doing what right, honorable people do. But the fact is that, in the 60s, you could be disowned for falling in love with a black woman or black man. There is a reason why we have a long history of publicly biracial black people, but not so much of publicly biracial white people.

We often give a pass to racists by noting that they were “of their times.” Fair enough, and I know Hawaii was a different beast, but still, today, let us speak of people who were ahead of their times, who were outside of their times. Let us remember that Barack Obama learned the great lessons of life from courageous white people. Let us speak of those who do what  normal, right people should always do when faced with a child–commit an act love. Here’s to doing the right thing.

I also agree with the writer that I am sad Obama’s mother and grandfather did not live to see him run for president. But I am thrilled his grandmother got her reward for investing so much in him.