Some would say it’s my fault, for wearing a dress like that to a political action.
How do you expect to be taken seriously?
(And, from certain older feminists): We fought to be seen as more than sex objects. How can you throw away that progress?
Understandable frustration. Wanna hear something scary (though maybe not all that shocking)? Recent psych studies (  ) testify to what many of us have understood through experience: that bodies read as “women” tend to be cognized as objects (to perilous, rape-y effect) whereas bodies read as “men” are perceived as human beings.
You have to wonder whether any of the images used in these psychological studies showed androgynous people, gender-queer people, fat people, elderly people, or visibly disabled people. (Anyone reading have access to the academic journals? Hook us up!) Normative standards of beauty and aesthetic ideals of ‘human-ness,’ from shape to skin color, must certainly affect the ways we are objectified or humanized. Politically, our looks affect our interactions as we pass out flyers, march and chant, photograph the action, deliver a speech, or bus or bike to the strike.
As for me, it’s not like it happens 100% of the time, but I can usually tell when strangers are paying closer attention to my hemline than my politics. Like the two guys waiting for their order at the taco truck on Monday, right next to the undocumented workers’ press conference against I-9 audits, or “silent raids.” I recognized one of the men from doorknocking in the neighborhood the day before.
“Hey!” I called. “You came!” (Do I care that he’s probably just there for lunch? Nope.) “Come meet the workers!”
At first they stay put at the taco truck; they want to chat me up, but they don’t want to walk over to the protest to do it. I approach them instead, talking talking talking. I make myself oily like a duck’s feathers, so the swamp water of sexism won’t soak me. (Awareness + acceptance* is my anti-patriarchy emotional preen gland.) I explain the background for the action: 125 workers fired with no notice — some after decades working for the industrial bakery, still making just $9.40 an hour. The guys’ ears perk up more. I allow myself to get more animated about it. “Come!” I say. “Come meet the workers!”
Eventually, some combination of the political content, the live brass band, and my encouragement does the trick. They walk over with me. I immediately introduce them to other people, older people. An elderly worker strikes up a conversation in Spanish with the neighbor who speaks it. Only then does it come out: the neighbor says, “Yeah, I know someone who works in here” (inside the factory that we’re protesting).
“Oh yeah?” says the fired worker slowly, scratching his ear. “Who?”
I flit away, to go dance some more with the band. Before the neighbor men leave, I make sure to say goodbye, ask them what they thought. I hope they keep supporting the fight.
* * *
If the psychological objectification of women is a pervasive phenomenon, it undermines the unity of the working class in the U.S., and deserves to be treated as seriously as the white skin privilege that the Sojourner Truth Organization (an almost all-white group) helped theorize, back in the late 60’s and 70’s. Class-struggle theorists continue to study the feminization and de-feminization of various factory and non-factory work, which is important. At the same time, I would love to hear more about ways that radical organizers are handling the manifestations of body politics that arise in the course of the political work. The way I’ve learned to handle things isn’t necessarily the best way, or a way that is relevant or useful for everyone.
Important note: by *acceptance of sexism I don’t mean that I want to permit sexism without trying to change it. The first step to changing something is accepting that it exists. Patriarchy is how it is, right now. I’ve been lightweight slut-shamed in my organizing circles before; it’s no fun. Misogyny may not be as acutely dangerous for me as transphobia or homophobia are for other people, or as sexism is for women trying to organize in other contexts (see, for example: sexual assaults during protests in Tahrir Square, which may actually be state-backed efforts to sow discord in uprising groups). But sexism here, in my life, still exists, still disrupts the political work we are trying to do together, and I have little choice but to name it and figure out how to deal. In the words of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur (who recently became the first woman on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists list):
People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.
In a way, it’s good to understand that the brains of many strangers see me as an object first. Lets me know what I’m working with. Then, compassionately — whether patiently or impatiently, playfully or gravely — I can try to thin and whittle those delusions in myself and others, to sound out new relationships written through the small-scale but meaningful struggles now at hand.