Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Givhan gets it wrong

July 24, 2007

Those who know me know that I am typically a fan of Washington Post fashion correspondent Robin Givhan. I think she writes sensibly about both haute couture and about the clothing choices and their signification of ordinary and not-so-ordinary women and men. Sure, her beat covers the frivolities and excesses of the Milan and New York catwalks, but she always keeps in mind that real women aren’t going to wear a feathered jumpsuit to work, no matter how “challenging” it might be.

Givhan also writes about the sartorial choices of the inside-the-beltway aristocracy; she’s criticized Cheney, poked fun at Bush, praised Sharpton, and cataloged Abramoff’s meltdown. She took some flack from feminists for her coverage of Condaleezza’s boots and Pelosi’s jacket — and at the time, I stood up for her.

The major feminist critique of Givhan is that “you shouldn’t focus on the clothes of women in politics — it suggests they are frivolous, and you wouldn’t do that with men”. There’s a very clear historical precedent for that critique, and it’s usually true — unless you are familiar with Givhan’s work. Then you start to notice that she does in fact cover the clothing of political men just as much as that of women. A casual reader of a single article isn’t going to notice that, but I think Givhan is very aware of what she’s doing.

Alas. Our idols have feet of clay.

Her latest piece is on Hillary Clinton’s cleavage. This one is different.

Assume for the moment that giving equal opportunity to analyzing the clothing choices of powerful women and men mitigates the problem that it has historically been women’s clothing that’s been overanalyzed. (I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but allow that reasonable people can disagree on the point.) But if you do accept that premise, you can’t write about cleavage. When you write about a woman’s cleavage, you get misogynist responses like these (from the comments page of the Post article):

  • What makes this newsworthy to me is not Hillary’s cleavage, which rivals Paul Reubens’, but the fact it may be the first public photo of any skin below her chin in 15 years…
  • a 60 year old womans boobs is not a pretty sight.
  • Hillary Clinton used to discuss her cliter (sic) and its needs during her famous battles with numerous Bills’ girlfriends.
  • Falsies. She used a whole box of tissues to beef up those jahoobies, such as they are.
  • Thanks for not showing a picture, cause it was bad enough reading about Hillary’s cleavage. A barf alert would have been nice though.
  • Just what we all needed, a shot of a post menopausal old bag’s boobies.

Happily, these are a tiny, tiny minority of comments — but the point remains. Despite your intentions, you have declared that her breasts are fair game for public discussion. And this never, never happens to men.

Although perhaps we can expect articles on the significance of whether the other presidential candidates dress to the left or to the right … ?


Marianas Update: End to guest worker program

July 3, 2007

A Senate bill has been introduced to end the guest worker program in the CNMI. Guest worker visas are notoriously problematic because a worker’s legal status is at the whim of their employer. Complain about working conditions? Complain about not being paid? Complain about sexual harrassment on the job? You get fired. Get fired? You’ll be deported.

On its face, then, getting rid of the guest worker program is a good idea — and in fact, progressive opposition to Congress’s most recent immigration package is based on the fact that it included new programs for temporary guest workers. (To be vigorously distinguished from regressive opposition to the package, which was based on Oh My God Scary Brown People.)

However. The proposed changes to immigration status for foreign workers in the CNMI are not good for workers. Under the bill, guest workers who have been employed in the Marianas for five years will be eligible to apply for “lawful non-immigrant status”. The key word here is non-immigrant. Non-immigrant status is a temporary condition. Under the terms of this bill, there is no provision for immigrant workers to apply for legal immigrant status. There is no path to a green card and then citizenship.

Non-immigrants are not eligible for federal assistance should they become unemployed. So the net effect for a worker who speaks out against her employer is the same. If you complain about your employer and get fired, good luck finding a job in another CNMI factory. So you want to strike out for the mainland?

Nothing in the immigration laws shall be construed to authorize or require any alien who has been admitted to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands pursuant to a Northern Mariana Islands-only visa or in any other status limited to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to be admitted to or permitted to enter any other part of the United States unless such admission or entry is otherwise authorized by the immigration laws.

Bad luck. You’re still stuck without decent legal protection.

Crocs and Socks

June 22, 2007

The Washington Post’s fashion correspondent, Robin Givhan, took some flak from feminist bloggers in the past for her coverage of Nancy Pelosi and Condaleezza Rice.

Givhan’s beat is to write about clothing and fashion (although not necessarily both at once), and I get the impression that although she gets a kick out of covering the latest catwalk shows in Milan, she’s not interested in only writing about haute couture*. One of the topics she frequently takes on is to analyze the social significance of clothing — and because she’s a DC based writer, she analyzes the social significance of clothing vis-a-vis power. It’s extremely difficult to write about the social significance of what powerful women are wearing, because for a very long time, there weren’t any powerful women, only women in supporting roles to powerful men. Because one of the jobs of those women was to be decorative, it was perfectly acceptable to write about their clothes. So when you write about the clothes of powerful women, you have to be careful not to imply that you think the women should have a decorative function.

Givhan succeeds at this in no small part because she is equally as likely to deconstruct the fashion choices of powerful men.

Hence today’s article on Bush’s choice to pair socks with crocs.

Givhan’s major focus is on the shoes.

The shoes can look cute on children. But all those adults walking around in Crocs, going on about how comfortable they are, look like overgrown children. They are like the workday Peter Pans who carry backpacks in the city. Not grown-up leather backpacks, but the kind made of nylon with water bottles stuck inside a web of bungee cords and a canister of Bear Be Gone hanging off the side. They have mistaken their walk to the office for a climb to the summit of the Grand Tetons.

Why, oh why, must people assimilate perfectly reasonable, functional and cheeky sports attire into street clothes? Why couldn’t they keep their Crocs on the boat or in the garden?

Oddly, she barely touches on the socks, merely commenting that crocs were originally designed as boat shoes, so socks are superfluous, and that “[t]he combination makes one think of an old man on his way to the beach.”

In the UK, socks and sandals are a fairly potent signifier. They are worn by people who in Australia would be called dags. The critical core of the stereotype is that the socks-and-sandal wearer is socially inept, unaware of the norms of sartorial behavior (which is quite different to a stance of being aware but not caring, which is to be admired). The closest US equivalent signifier that I can manage to bring to mind is the pocket protector, and even that has achieved some level of geek chic — although I suspect these folks are trying to bring something similar to the s&s brigade:

Is that a great photo or what?


*Even when she is writing about the rarefied air of Snooty Fashion Week, she manages to keep her feet on the ground. She looks to runway shows as predictors of what will translate to accessible RTW collections and thinks in terms of how ordinary women will react to their translation to street wear. She’s also been critical of the CFDA’s “voluntary” health plan to combat eating disorders in the modelling industry.

Standing up for women at Liz Claiborne

May 7, 2007

Sunday’s Washington Post carried a story about workplace outreach strategies for victims of domestic violence: Office Awareness Can Head Off Abuse At Home. It highlights corporations which are acting to protect and assist women and men in domestic violence situations. Liz Claiborne is apparently one of the most progressive companies in the country in this regard; it’s called the “gold standard” by Kay Wells, executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence.

Liz Claiborne instituted its program after a survey found that 23% (!!) of its employees had been victims of domestic violence. They approach the program from a bottom line perspective, pointing out that domestic violence gives rise to absenteeism and and increased health-care costs for the company. (Although I did hesitate at the spokesperson who compared DV to “alcoholism and drug abuse”.)

The company sponsors a domestic violence awarness website, Love Is Not Abuse.

Key points of the Liz Claiborne policy (pdf) include:

  • Allowing short term leave for employees who want to leave violent households.
  • Assigning parking spaces in well-lit areas (this is so simple and easy for any business to do)
  • Making sure that communication with corporate security is kept confidential.
  • Removing employee’s names from telephone directories.
  • Instituting non-discrimination policies to cover victims of domestic violence.
  • Retaining the right to pursue disciplinary action or dismissal if employees are found to be engaging in acts or threats of domestic violence while at work or using company resources.

As well as protecting the bottom line, DV prevention policies also act to reduce the risk of workplace violence. Perpetrators of domestic violence don’t leave their violent behavior at the door in the morning. State Farm, another company mentioned in the piece, cites the stat that 28% of reported threats of violence in the workplace had a basis in domestic violence.

In March 2003, an employee’s husband was sent away from a Liz Claiborne distribution center because he didn’t have security clearance. He returned with a gun. The company’s security team got local police involved and locked down the facility, and after a standoff the husband was caught. The company’s security practices may have saved lives that day, said Mark Couch, a Claiborne human resources director.

So kudos, Liz Claiborne. And I like your shoes.

Storm in a D cup

April 19, 2007

via Feministe

About two dozen young women in Louisiana were refused entry to their prom on the grounds that their dresses were “too revealing”. The young women and their parents are outraged, suggesting that the girls who were refused entry happened to be larger-busted than their peers, but that their dresses were no more revealing.

I can’t link directly to the images, but you can see a slideshow of the dresses here . I think they are quite appropriate for young women at a formal event — they look exactly like the kinds of dresses I see younger women wearing at weddings, for instance. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the young women who are photographed are black, although according to Feministe commenters, only 62% of the population of the school is black.

There is a very sweet comment from a young man whose date was turned away, reported in the Times-Picayune:

“I find it’s wrong, because you can’t help what the girl has. You’re born with that,” the senior said. “I think it was discrimination toward a woman who has features.”

The wording is a little clumsy (I don’t generally refer to my breasts as “features”!) — but I think what we have here is a young man who realizes exactly what is going on, but is trying to to show some respect to these young women and not engage in public discourse about what their bodies look like. Which is more than can be said for school personnel, one of whom apparently said of one of the women “No, her chest is too big and it (the dress) reveals too much”.

Well, hell. Her chest is too big. I guess you can get all dressed up for your prom and feel like a million bucks, but if your chest is too big, someone is going to decide you aren’t really fit for polite company.

Ethnic Costume

April 5, 2007

I’ve been away for a week or so, attending my brother’s wedding in Australia.

Here’s my brother, resplendent in kilt, sporran, and skean dhu.

My brother in his kilt

The skean dhu is the traditional knife worn with the kilt — you can see it just protruding from his right sock.



March 14, 2007

I was wandering through a downtown department store the other day looking for a pair of socks. I prefer socks in natural fibers, so I usually check the fiber content — and I was intrigued when I came across a pair made from 100% bamboo.

Bamboo is beginning to get a foothold in the construction industry. It was widely featured as a material in the Green House exhibit at the National Building Museum here in Washington DC, where it had a wide variety of applications, from floor planking to carpeting to furniture. It’s been praised by advocates of green technologies as more sustainable than wood because of its short growth cycle.

I don’t doubt that some of the claims made by folks using bamboo in their manufacturing are quite true. It does have a faster growth cycle than timber. It may very possibly “generate more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees”, as is claimed at SFGate. That’s an odd claim, though. Do we need more oxygen? We certainly need less CO2, but if that’s what it does, why not say so? (And what’s an “equivalent” stand of trees, anyway?)

Maybe it’s just incompetence on my part, but among all of these claims, I can’t find a whole lot of links to actual studies which provide evidence for the claims. Now a good number of the claims come from advertisers (including a decent number of the claims made by the Green House exhibit, which very prominently lists the commercial suppliers for the products used to produce the house). Some of the claims from advertisers verge on the absurd.

For instance, from Bambu, which makes bamboo kitchenware:

“Bamboo shoots provide a nutritional source of food which can be made into bread, cakes scones and cookies.”

Well. Hell. If there’s gonna be cakes, scones and cookies!! Must be good. They don’t say how much of the bamboo grown for their product line makes it into the secondary baked goods market, but I’m sure most of it does.

There are a ton of companies now offering bamboo clothing. One of the claims specific to clothing is the “antibacterial” properties of bamboo:

Its test results shows over 70% death rate after bacteria was incubated on bamboo fibre fabric. In addition, tests by the Japanese Textile Inspection Association found that, even after fifty times of washing, bamboo fabric still possessed these functions.

Science! At last! I figured that maybe I could find this Japanese Textile Inspection Association online. Oddly, they don’t get many hits on google — a scant 25, many of which appear to be repeating claims from the Bambrotex manufacturing plant in China.

Now, I’ll buy that there could possibly be translation problems going on here — if the “Japanese Textile Inspection Association” is a translation from Japanese to Chinese to English, it’s entirely possible that the science is available online, and I just can’t find it, because that’s not the name of the research institute. And it’s also entirely possible that it’s not available in English. (This doesn’t count.)

Something of a bigger problem for me is that a lot of the bamboo milled and woven into fabric appears to be coming out of China. I’m very skeptical about environmental claims coming from advertisers anywhere, but China isn’t exactly an international star of environmental regulation.

I also have to wonder — if I were to buy those renewable, sustainable, bamboo socks, how much money went to the worker who made the fiber? What sort of factory does she work in? What sort of labor protections does she have?

International Women’s Day

March 8, 2007

March 8th is International Women’s Day. The factory floors of the global garment industry are mostly staffed by women, and these women have been fighting for fair labor conditions for decades.

One of the little known aspects of the recently-passed Fair Minimum Wage Act is its provision for fair labor standards in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or CNMI. The CNMI has for years been what Tom Delay has called “a perfect petri dish of capitalism”, an unregulated and mostly unnoticed island incubator for the garment industry, under the imprimatur of the United States. Garments made in the CNMI can bear the label “Made in the USA”, but the workers in CNMI garment factories are not protected by US minimum wage or labor protections.

These workers in these garment factories are often young women imported from southeast Asia, and forced into what amounts to indentured servitude. Women recruited to these factories must repay recruiter’s fees before they have access to their wages. They are also often required to repay living costs to their employers for housing and food. In order to meet these expenses, they are forced to work to the point of exhaustion.

“One or two days a week we’d work through an entire night, and I was exhausted,” says Chen Xiaoyan, 26, a nervous young woman with a thin ponytail who used to work for RIFU. “Sometimes we had no Sundays off either, but if you didn’t want to work they’d allow you no overtime at all as a punishment.”

Previous attempts to regulate labor conditions in the CNMI have been stymied by everyone’s favorite disgraced lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. Abramoff was hired by the CNMI government in 1995 to protect their interests in the garment industry, and used his pull with Republicans in the Congress to block dozens of bills which would have ensured basic labor protections for CNMI workers.

Some of the women who travel to the CNMI in the hope of finding work find themselves in far more sinister conditions. On February 8, 2007, Kayleen Entena testified to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

My name is Kayleen D. Entena. I am 23 years old; I am from Laguna Province in the Philippines. Laguna Province is about two hours by bus from Metro Manila. I am the eldest child in my family. I have four brothers, my father passed away when I was in elementary school. My mother works sometimes as a housekeeper. When I was recruited in the Philippines for work in Saipan in September, 2005, I was excited about the opportunity towork abroad. I was promised to be paid $400.00 a month to work as a waitress, they told me I would be working in a restaurant.

Entena goes on to testify that when she arrived in Saipan, she found that she had instead been recruited into a brothel. You can read her entire chilling testimony here (pdf).

I am hoping that this kind of illegal system will stop, the way it happened to me, the way I was treated. I do not want this to happen to anyone. I know that there are other women out in the community like me. They are just afraid to speak out because they don’t know where to go or just because they have to support their family back home. Please help change the way the government functions here on the CNMI. If there’s no change or people are not held responsible for their actions then it will continue to happen to innocent victims. I hope you will hear my wish. I am forever grateful.

The Fair Minimum Wage Act promises protections for women like Chen and Entena. The only thing which is currently preventing this bill from becoming law is the signature of President Bush.