Thursday, March 15, 2012

The High Price of Women's Political Apathy in the 2010 Elections

On March 12, NPR's Diane Rheum Show hosted a panel discussion about "The Battle for Women's Votes." I tuned in after the introductions were made and listened for quite a while before I knew who the three guests were. One of the panelists presented her points of view in a harsh and harridan-ish way, scolding and chastising the other guests and speaking very derisively of everyone whose comments she did not like. A picture arose in my mind as I listened to her: Sister Mary Scary, nine feet tall, six feet wide, wooden ruler in hand, ready to deliver retribution to anyone who looked like they might start trouble. (Is it obvious that I attended Catholic school during my formative years?)

When the host reintroduced everyone, it all became clear. The harridan-ish person was an actual, bonafide harridan, Phyllis Schlaffly. Younger people may not know who Phyllis is. Lucky you. She is an Catholic Illinoisan who became the extremely vocal and exceedingly nasty leader of the anti-choice movement beginning in the early 1970s. (A little history lesson: repressive anti-abortion laws in the USA were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1973.)

I lived in St. Louis, Missouri at the time and found it very difficult to escape Phyllis's harping and screeching anti-choice venom. She also espoused a very fundamentalist, anachronistic view of women's position in marriage and society. I could not stand Phyllis or her political and social agenda and I felt disappointed on Monday to discover that she hadn't gone the way of the dinosaur yet. Aside from her comments, I found the program very interesting.

The other two guests were Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization of Women, and Karen Tumulty, a national political reporter for the Washington Post. Terry O'Neill made a comment that riveted me. She said that the 2010 national and state legislature election outcomes were severely affected by an unusually low turnout of women voters. (O'Neill cited a study to support this, which I can't remember, so you'll have to listen to the program on Diane Rehm's podcast if you want those details.)

According to this study, O'Neill said, an extraordinary number of ultra-conservative and fundamentalist-leaning candidates gained office because women did not vote. O'Brien and Associates blog post of February 24, 2012, states, "However, according to O’Neill, the total number of women voters dropped in 2010, particularly unmarried women, who traditionally vote more progressively and Democratic. Married women tend to become more Republican."

So what difference did a little apathy on the part of women make? Just this. Over 1,000 anti-women bills (meaning anti-choice, anti-birth control, anti-equal rights, etc.) have been introduced at the state level since 2010 and over 100 of them have passed. And we've all seen what's been happening in Washington. Did you wonder why we suddenly had this spate of dangerous legislation like forcible sonogram bills? Now you have the answer.

Women got fed up and stayed home from the polls. The number of women in national elected office suffered, too. As quoted in the O'Brien and Associates blog I mentioned earlier, O'Neill states,  “In 1992, the number of women in Congress increased from 5 percent to 10 percent. And in 2010, we lost women in Congress largely in part because of women not voting.”

My contemporaries and I worked hard, really hard, in the 1960s and 1970s to overcome paternalistic and misogynistic laws and attitudes in the United States. I speak for many women when I say that, as members of the last generation that witnessed the horrors of illegal abortions first hand, pro-choice and pro-birth control legislation has the greatest significance for us. We are now the older generation. We still support these causes, although I, for one, admit to utter weariness with fighting the same battles again and again.

What do we do? Oddly enough, the answer appears to be quite simple. Vote. I'd like to say "Vote early and often," the old canard from Chicago's Daley-machine days, but that would be wrong. Just vote once, but do vote. Even if your vote is different from mine, even if you support things that I think are awful, vote. Women have the potential to powerfully affect election outcomes and we need to exercise that power this year. If the ultra-conservatives get a stronger grip on this country in November, it may be the last opportunity we have for quite a while.

Fight back with your vote.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dancing Through the Weekend

My 3-6-12 blog got sidelined. After I reread it, I realized that it had sunk to whining and complaining and, even worse, it named names. Part of me wanted the people in question to see it and feel bad, another part of me thought that the ensuing discourse would not be helpful and might cause hard feelings. I decided to opt for rising above my own hard feelings to avoid causing them in others.

While I mulled this dilemma over, I put the posting into Limbo, just in case I decided to publish it after all. Now that I’m going with the angel instead of the devil, I need to publish something for this week.

Hmm … Someone once told me she did not read blogs because who cared what someone else ate for lunch anyway. I have used that as my standard for essays. Is it more interesting than what I ate for lunch to someone who is not me? Looking over my recent escapades, I think I will focus on dance experiences.

Last weekend, Michael and I were privileged to see not one, but TWO ballet companies perform – The Houston Ballet and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. The Houston Ballet danced an updated version of Cinderella. It charmed me. Cinderella, transformed from a helpless drudge dependent on bluebirds, mice, and a fairy godmother, gives as good as she gets from the nasties in her life.

She punches and kicks in scuffles with the stepsisters, played by two young men in the company who minced and preened perfectly, and is no more cowed by the wicked stepmother than the stepsisters are. Stepmother, played by another male dancer, is severe and conniving and not above man-handling all three of the girls. She saves her special meanness for Cinderella, though, by mistreating the girl’s alcohol-impaired father and by taunting her with what she can’t have – a ticket to the big ball at the castle.

The funniest scenes of this dance took place at the ball. Prince Florimund is played not as charming, but as vain and over impressed with himself. Florimund and his minions reminded me of The Fonz with their use of moves stereotypical of a man on the prowl. The kind of guy that delivers a terrible pick-up line with the absolute certainty that he is funny and delightful and all maidens within earshot will promptly swoon.

Cinderella swoons for another, however, a spectacled young man who is the only nice one among the minions. Ultimately, the two of them get to have the happily ever after they deserve. The stepmother and stepsisters get appropriate (and satisfying to the viewer) comeuppances. And the father, by dying nobly, finally protecting his daughter, is reunited with his first wife to live in blissful, ghostly happiness.

Not to be overlooked were the zombies. Billed as ghosts, a five-year-old would have recognized them as zombies. In this version, it is Cinderella’s dead mother (oddly un-zombie like) and her army of zombie minions who save the day for Cindy. The undead were funny and danced exactly the way I would have expected zombies to dance if I had ever considered that they might do ballet.

I found the ballet charming and funny and well worth the time and money I invested in seeing it. The Alvin Ailey Dance Company was equally worthwhile, although an altogether different dance experience.

Before I get into that, let me just get this off my chest: Jones Hall is by far the most badly designed venue in Houston for patrons. The endless stairways one must climb and descend to get anywhere – bathrooms, concessions, seats – are ludicrous and it boggles the imagination that someone actually planned the place.

If it had grown from a small theater to the big place it is by accretion, like you see among older homes in the country sometimes, I would be more tolerant, but this is not Ma and Pa Kettle’s old cabin with rooms added willy-nilly over 50 years. Someone actually thought this theater’s layout was a good idea!! Don’t even let me get started on the difficulties it caused me when I was in a wheelchair. We stopped going there after one season because it was simply too hard to navigate. Now I’m walking, but it is almost as difficult for able-bodied people as for the handicapped. What were they thinking??

Now, back to the dancing. The first thing that struck my about the AA dancers was their size. These performers, men and women, seemed bigger than most dancers, more athletic and robust. It did not impair their dancing at all, nor did it diminish their grace or the beauty of their movements.

This performance felt like one was reading a book of short stories, where Cinderella approximated a novel. The genres are different, but both are worthwhile. The AA Dance Company gave us short dances with lots of meat on them to mull over and think about after the performance ended. A few of them really stood out.

The Hunt, performed by men wearing long, red-lined black skirts beautifully portrayed the camaraderie and competition among a cohort of hunters. The skirts, an odd contrast to their bare chests, startled me at first, but by the dance’s conclusion, I felt they fit perfectly with the choreography. The music for this dance, selections from “Jungle Jazz,” thrilled me with its booming, staccato rhythms. I need to see if that album is still available.

The biggest piece in the performance was also the most impressive. Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey, sets dances to ten Negro spirituals. Each spiritual had its own costuming, which always seemed absolutely perfect for the music and the choreography. “Wade in the Water,” for one example, featured men in loose-fitting white trousers and women in long, flowing white dresses and wide-brimmed, white, flowered hats. A bolt of satiny blue cloth stretched diagonally across the stage and, manipulated by unseen hands, billowed and flowed like water as the dancers moved in and out of it. It seemed like perfection to me.

I have seen a group of Alvin Ailey dancers perform before once before, in 1991 or 1992, at a free performance in the lobby of the World Trade Center in NYC. (Don’t ask me which building.) I was in NYC on business and fit in a visit with my college friend, Greg, who took me on my first subway adventure to get to the performance. It was my one and only experience with the World Trade Center prior to 9-11, and it has given me a wonderful alternate image to substitute for the final images we all saw of those buildings.

I would definitely attend another Alvin Ailey Dance Company performance, even if I had to go to Jones Hall to see it, and I’m already seeing the Houston Ballet again next Saturday. One difference between the performances that really got my attention was the demographics of the audiences. The Houston Ballet performances I usually go to –Sunday afternoon in the past and Saturday evening in recent years – are predominantly attended by white people, with a few black, Hispanic, and Asian patrons included. When there were some black dancers in the company, including Lauren Anderson, Carlos Acosta, and a young dancer named Cleopatra Williams, the black audience was bigger.

The audience at the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s performance we saw, on a Sunday afternoon, was mostly black. I didn’t particularly notice if there were Hispanic or Asian faces in the crowd, whites were in the minority. It seemed like the proportions were 60%-40% or thereabouts. The crowd obviously appreciated dance, so why aren’t they attending performances of the Houston Ballet in greater numbers? Is it as simple as the lack of black dancers in the HB? Is it a failure of outreach, not advertising to diverse communities? I don’t have the answers, but I appreciated being in an audience with a diverse composition. I’d like to see that more at Houston Ballet.