Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports
By Lindsay Parks Pieper
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 250 pp., $22.50, paperback
Reviewed by Laura Pappano
An e-mail arrived recently from a college student I had met several times. Embedded in the electronic signature below the year of graduation, residential college, and major was a quick line of text: “Pronouns: he/him/his.”
It surprised me. Not because the pronouns were different from what I had expected—I had perceived this student as male—but because he chose to include them. He was proclaiming don’t assume you know what I am. He was reminding me, and everyone else he e-mails, that gender identity is neither fixed nor obvious.
Ambiguity is a hallmark of our time, from confusion over the sources of extremist danger to the state of race relations, the future of the planet, the purpose of a college degree, or the true healthfulness of so-called healthy foods (must we eat kale?). When it comes to gender and biological sex, we are getting used to a fluid view of “male” and “female,” and overturning old norms. This is not simply a nod to surgery and hormone therapy, or the rising profile of transgender people, but the recognition that biological sex is more complicated than many once believed.
This wiggly reality has been a stubborn adversary for Olympic and international sport officials, who insist on dividing competition into neat categories: male and female. The desire for certain sex identity—for dichotomy, where nature offers a spectrum—has spurred a costly, complicated, and fraught process to “prove” that female athletes are, indeed, female. (Males require no such proof).
Questions of why, how, and for what purpose athletic associations have so fervently sex tested female athletes is at the heart of Lindsay Parks Pieper’s Sex Testing. In it, she digs into the history, politics, and mangled logic for sex testing elite female athletes, particularly in Olympic competition. She argues that the process is more about enforcing western ideals of womanhood than about procuring that elusive “level playing field” for competition. Top sport officials, she writes, “found it inconceivable that strong, muscular women could be authentic or natural,” and attempted to enforce a “vision of appropriate female athleticism.” They seemed to believe “that any man could don a wig or a skirt and defeat all women in athletic competition.”
On-site sex testing was officially instituted during the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and suspended just this year: there was no sex testing in Rio. However, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), founded as a governing body for track and field, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sought sex verification as early as the 1920s. Questions arose most often in track and field when an athlete was taller, more muscular, or faster than was deemed possible.
At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, for example, when Hitomi Kinue of Japan came in second in the 800-meter event behind Lina Radke of Germany, some in the press speculated that Kinue was a man. The race became famous because six runners fell exhausted to the ground, prompting the cancellation of women’s distance events for years. “Based largely on Hitomi’s athletic success and her unmarried status,” writes Pieper, one reporter “deduced that she was ‘40 or 50 percent male and 50 or 60 percent female.’” Years later, in a 1936 article in the New York Times, reporter Grantland Rice alluded to the 1928 games in which “the investigating committee was out two hours before it decided predominant sex” of a Japanese woman competitor.
The requirements of femininity have long been at odds with sport. Female athletes who didn’t appear classically feminine fed the myth that sports such as track and field weren’t appropriate for women and, worse, could have a masculinizing effect. The brash, all-around athlete Babe Didrikson was criticized as unladylike. She and the track stars Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh were “lambasted [for] their muscular physiques, unfeminine appearances, working-class backgrounds,” observes Pieper. “Mannish” female athletes threatened a gender order in which men were powerful and women lithe and delicate. “Calls to implement sex testing,” writes Pieper, were not about fair play but about ensuring heterofemininity.
Over the years, the testing has taken different forms. In the 1920s and 1930s, the only way to tell if an athlete was female was to look. Whenever there was “a definite question as to sex,” explains Pieper, the IOC and IAAF called for an exam. This created problems. For one thing, only muscular women were singled out. Then there was the exam itself. Here Pieper is less than clear. How extensive were the exams? Who performed them? The allusion to the Japanese athlete who left examiners puzzled for two hours is intriguing: visual inspection had limitations. Pressure to verify all female competitors—not just suspicious ones—led the IAAF in 1947 and the IOC in 1948 to require certificates signed by a doctor. Yet these could be easy to obtain.
During the cold war, Soviet and eastern-bloc female athletes were encouraged to train more aggressively than American women, who feared “unsightly” muscles. This made Russians and Eastern Europeans—excluding the “pixie-like” child-gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci—suspect. And indeed, some of this suspicion turned out to be justified: East German female swimmers were subjected to a horrific doping program that led to illnesses and ruined lives.
As with the East Germans, the separate issues of sex testing and doping are often conflated, writes Pieper. Sports authorities first tested for steroids in 1974 at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand—although none who failed were penalized—and then at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. At the time, it was acceptable for male athletes, particularly weightlifters, to take steroids: the drugs enhanced their masculinity. “The most serious and dangerous use of drugs by females,” one journalist warned, “is the taking of male hormones.” The press erroneously reported that a “new infamous sex test”—sex chromatin testing, developed in the late 1940s and used at the 1968 Olympics—would offer an ideal scientific solution. But it did no such thing.
In the chromatin, or Buccal smear test, a small amount of DNA, usually from a scrape inside the cheek, is amplified to reveal an athlete’s chromosomal makeup. The test is difficult to read: in a medical journal, two scientists pointed out that even the scientist who invented it, Murray Barr, read some tests incorrectly. And in a 1956 article in the British medical journal, the Lancet, Barr himself begged “physicians to act with ‘caution and diplomacy’ when labeling sex and to use the chromosomal check sparingly.” He was ignored.
Biological sex simply cannot be clearly categorized. The chromatin test has humiliated women born with chromosomal differences, such as those with mosaicism, who have cells containing both XY and XX chromosomes, and those with androgen insensitivity, who have Y chromosomes and test as male, yet have many female physical characteristics. These and other intersex states have been common enough to raise questions about the test’s validity or usefulness—but not before many female athletes were publicly shocked by results they never anticipated. The chromatin test also results in a fair number of false positives, reports Pieper:
From a sample of “normal appearing males,” the Barr body test labeled one out of seven hundred as female. The test also identified one out of two hundred women as male, which was of particular significance for the Olympics.
Yet, rather than question testing itself, the IOC medical commission in the 1990s embraced a new test: the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which seeks out a specific DNA sequence—the sex-determining region or SRY—to identify the presence of a Y gene, a sign of “maleness.” Because the test was susceptible to contamination, female workers were assigned to take the samples from female athletes.
In 1999, the IOC announced an end to official sex testing—yet in a nod to old fears, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, officials required inspectors to visually scrutinize athletes’ genitalia during the urination required for antidoping exams. Such scrutiny, argues Pieper, marks yet another instance of the troublesome conflation of doping and sex testing.
Pieper makes a powerful case for the folly and pain of sex testing, sharing the case of the Spanish hurdler Maria Patiño. When Patiño forgot to bring her verification card to international competition in Japan in 1986, she underwent and failed a chromatin test—stunning herself and the world. Pieper chronicles the controversy in detail, as Patiño, with the help of a Finnish physician, sparked doubts about the value of sex testing, and its hold began to unravel.
Although Sex Testing is thorough and well documented, we need more science. Chromosomal abnormalities are explained early on, but later, as we hear about Barr’s doubts about his sex chromatin test and about limitations of PCR testing, we need more. What, precisely, are the tests’ weaknesses? Why do intersex conditions go undetected and unsuspected, even by those who have them?
The strength of Sex Testing is its detail, though at times the structure seems weak; the book is more a jumble of gems than a necklace. Still, because it is chock full of terrific research from primary sources, it will be useful for academics. And Pieper’s message comes through loud and clear: sex testing is a political act. It is about enforcing gender norms, not ensuring fair play.
In Pieper’s epilogue, she notes that although sex testing has officially ended, sports authorities have not let go. Instead, they’ve raised a new question: what is biological fairness? Should women with hyperandrogenism, or higher-than-average levels of androgenic hormones––be allowed to compete?
Just prior to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was pulled aside, tested, and deemed ineligible. Although she had always thought of herself as female, the tests showed higher-than-average testosterone levels. Chand was offered medical “treatment,” which she refused. Instead, she appealed to the Court of Arbitration, which decides sports cases. On July 24, 2015, the court permitted Chand to return to competition, ruling that the IAAF had failed to prove the benefit of higher testosterone levels: “There is presently insufficient evidence about the degree of the advantage,” the court wrote, as it suspended the hyperandrogenism regulations for two years.
“Fairness,” observes Pieper in her conclusion, “is an abstract concept that does not exist in elite sport.” The fact is, birth advantage helps many athletes excel. The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a longer-than-average arm span, an elongated torso, short legs, size 14 feet, and double-jointed ankles that enable him to bend fifteen degrees farther than most swimmers. At 6́́ 5́́́́ ́, the sprinter Usain Bolt has a height advantage. While abnormalities and variations give many athletes an edge, women have born an unfair share of scrutiny. As Pieper reminds us, “only sex/gender differences resulted in disqualification.”
Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women. A journalist who writes on education and gender and sport, Pappano is co-author of Playing With The Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sport (2007), was a varsity college athlete, and continues to be an avid sports participant (though has never been sex tested).
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
By Rosemary Sullivan
New York: HarperCollins, 2015, 752 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Lesley Rimmel
Rosemary Sullivan’s subtitle says it all: Svetlana Alliluyeva’s life was “extraordinary and tumultuous.” This is a hefty volume about a remarkable woman who seemed both familiar to me yet also sui generis. She endured countless tragedies, especially deaths and separations, partially relieved by interludes of relative happiness. She famously defected to the United States in 1967. But, as Alliluyeva complained, “Wherever I go, whether to Australia or some island, I will always be the political prisoner of my father’s name.” To the end of her life, she had to contend with the burden of being the only daughter (and only surviving child) of one of history’s “most brutal dictators,” writes Sullivan.With the help of Alliluyeva’s published writings, her voluminous correspondence, and interviews with many of those who knew her personally, Sullivan has crafted a solid biography that is nearly impossible to put down.
This monumental book begins with a preface outlining the arc of Alliluyeva’s eventful life, and it includes an extended family tree, helpful for keeping track of relatives and relationships. An expanded list of Alliluyeva’s most important friends, relatives, and other associates is appended to the main text.
The book unfolds as an almost Shakespearean drama, with Alliluyeva’s defection as the central dramatic point. Following the preface is a prologue that details the first days of her defection to the US Embassy in India, where she had gone to scatter the ashes of her would-be husband, Brajesh Singh, whom the Soviet government had refused to allow her to marry. Alliluyeva suddenly decided to take the opportunity to escape her treatment as a “national relic.” It was International Women’s Day, and she knew the Soviet Embassy staff would be too preoccupied with their libations to notice her absence until it was too late. This is an exciting and suspenseful chapter—but it does not spoil Sullivan’s extended treatment of the defection midway through the book, as I had feared it might. Instead, this device helps fortify readers for the tragedy-filled times to come.
The book next retraces Alliluyeva’s earliest years, “that place of sunshine,” as she called her childhood, to which she would “always turn … for solace.” What made those years so beguiling in Alliluyeva’s memory was the presence of her extended family, including the Svanidzes, Stalin’s in-laws through his late first wife Ekaterina, who had died shortly after the birth of their son Yakov, in 1907; and Stalin’s in-laws from his much younger second wife, Nadezhda (Nadya) Alliluyeva. In addition, members of Stalin’s circle often functioned as doting “uncles.”
There was only one missing link in this warm, “Chekhovian” household (as Sullivan describes it): Alliluyeva’s mother Nadya. She was a serious, even austere woman, devoted to being a good Communist and always endeavoring to upgrade her education and qualifications (a trait Alliluyeva would share), a disciplinarian who was often away from home because of work obligations. The only letter Alliluyeva ever received from her, at age six, was one admonishing her to behave better. It was 1932, a time of extreme stress in the country, with the first Five-Year-Plan of rushed industrialization and forced collectivization of agriculture creating violence, starvation, and resentment among the population. At a celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution for Kremlin leaders and their families in November, Stalin and Nadya suddenly had strong words, after which she returned to her apartment and shot herself to death.
Alliluyeva, at six-and-a-half, could only register her mother’s death as abandonment. She could not help identifying with her father, who (in his way) coddled her and made believe that she was his “little hostess,” manipulative as this was. Not until ten years later did Alliluyeva—under orders during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) to polish her English and study American history—find out the truth about her mother’s suicide, in a British newspaper. Along with the deaths of many of her relatives in the Great Terror of the late 1930s, for which she was discovering her father was largely responsible, the revelation was “shattering,” writes Sullivan. It led to her gradual break from her father and identification with the long-gone and ever-mysterious Nadya, although learning of the suicide did not remove Alliluyeva’s feeling of abandonment.
By the time Alliluyeva was a teenager, she was trying to pull away from the family confines in the Kremlin. Stalin was, like most parents, concerned about the men she dated. But unlike most teenaged girls, Alliluyeva had to put up with a bodyguard always tailing her, secret police agents rifling through her belongings and listening in on her phone calls—as well as the sentencing of one of her lovers to a labor camp. Life in this gilded cage brought her additional loneliness, which she tried to assuage through marriages: she had a great capacity and need for love. In both her personal and professional lives, she yearned for partnerships—but Stalin and his successors were always trying to thwart them. Her first marriage at eighteen to a Jewish friend of her brother’s did not win the blessing of the anti-Semitic Stalin, whose reactionary sexual politics led him to see Alliluyeva as “damaged goods” in any case. The marriage of these two young people lasted three years and brought them a son. Two more Soviet husbands (and one daughter) followed, with each union a year shorter than the previous one. There were numerous romances, all with top literary intellectuals, who appreciated Alliluyeva’s depth of thinking. When at last Alliluyeva—free of her father, who died in 1953—found the man she considered her “soulmate,” Brajesh Singh, he was already dying. The aftermath of Singh’s death set the scene for her hasty decision to defect. She did not even have time to consider how leaving would affect her son and daughter.
Alliluyeva’s life was almost evenly divided between the Soviet Union and the United States, and her life, work, and loves were equally turbulent in both countries. Her defection to the US was a huge media event, and the previously private Alliluyeva handled press conferences with aplomb. She published her first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967), a memoir in epistolary form of her family in the USSR; it achieved great success and, as her American handlers had hoped, helped to ensure that she was not dependent on US government financial support. She made many friends, including with literary figures and senior American specialists on Soviet affairs, such as the US diplomat George Kennan. His warm correspondence with Alliluyeva reveals an unexpected side of the usually distant Kennan, who helped set her up in Princeton, where she lived for a few years, until the late 1968 break-up of her tempestuous relationship with the author Louis Fischer, her neighbor.
The break-up left her feeling humiliated and betrayed, and her behavior was extreme. One evening she drove to Fischer’s house while his editorial assistant/new inamorata was with him. Alliluyeva banged on the door and demanded that he return the letters she had sent him. After an hour with no response, she broke the glass panels framing the door. The police found her “bleeding and hysterical,” writes Sullivan. Enraged by the ensuing gossip swirling around her, Alliluyeva later drove her car into Fischer’s house. Sullivan does not merely recount such events; she comments on them with sympathy and sensitivity. She also stands back and asks difficult questions. Was Alliluyeva mentally unstable? Was she paranoid? Her angry letters later in life to those who had earlier helped her, such as Kennan, were vindictive, and the relationships did not fully recover. As for paranoia, no one who lived in Stalin’s time or even afterward could survive without a certain dose of fear and caution, and it could be difficult to turn off that sense of watchfulness, as many émigrés can attest. And the KGB still had Alliluyeva in its sights.
Once she settled into the US, people from all over the world began writing to her, which she appreciated. Not long before she left Princeton to tour America by car, she received a life-changing letter from Olgivanna Wright, the third wife and widow of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Olgivanna, a Montenegrin whose mother had once ridden to battle on horseback against the Turks, was now the head of Wright’s architectural movement, the Taliesin Fellowship, members of which spent summers in Arizona. Olgivanna—a self-styled mystic who had built up her own “cult of personality” (the term Nikita Khrushchev famously applied to Stalin)—insisted that Alliluyeva visit on her way to California. Olgivanna had lost a daughter, also named Svetlana, in an accident, and she believed that she and Stalin’s daughter were destined to meet. Alliluyeva took the bait, imagining that Olgivanna might resemble the late Nadya.
Alliluyeva found Taliesin strange, but she stayed on, and in three weeks she was married again, to Wesley Peters, Taliesin’s chief architect and the widower of the late Sveltlana. Olgivanna Wright had blamed Peters for her daughter’s death, and his guilt made him easy to manipulate. Furthermore, Wright believed the false rumors that Stalin had hidden gold in Switzerland for his daughter—and the foundation’s leaders intended to obtain that money for Taliesin, to maintain its opulent lifestyle. While the wedding she had engineered was taking place, her agents quietly maneuvered to get Alliluyeva’s financial resources for the Fellowship. In an unfortunate coincidence, not long after the marriage, Alliluyeva asked to have her own money transferred from a trust to her personally, so she could access it without having to go through lawyers and trustees, which she found demeaning—but which her advisers had felt (with good reason) was prudent. Stalin had taught his daughter to live frugally, so until then, she had barely touched the $1.5 million in her account. But once married, she believed that it was in her interest as a wife to pay off Peters’s debts; because of his out-of-control shopping sprees these had mounted to half a million dollars.
Alliluyeva then learned that the Foundation had contacted her lawyers and requested that her charitable trust make annual contributions of $30,000 to the Foundation. Infuriated, she denied the request, but the Foundation managed to find other ways of obtaining at least one payment of $30,000 (it charged Alliluyeva for apartment repairs that architectural apprentices had performed for free). Finally, Alliluyeva realized that Wright was using her for her money and fame. She moved out of Taliesin and into an apartment fifteen minutes away, leaving open the possibility that Peters might wean himself from Wright and move in with her—although she was also pushing for a divorce. Peters tried to delay it, primarily because he was still spending Alliluyeva’s money. Marathon efforts by Alliluyeva’s lawyers produced a divorce in 1972. The marriage had been doomed from the start. The two could not even agree on what they disagreed about. Alliluyeva asserted that she could not stand Taliesin because it was too communal, saying, “I believe in private property … that’s why I left Russia.” Yet Peters feared that “her mind had been conditioned by years of Communist training to the point she rejects the highly individualized life.”
Wright, in taking advantage of someone still learning her way around the American financial system, engineered probably the worst betrayal of Alliluyeva’s life. Sullivan describes Wright’s machinations in the passive voice, but it is obvious that she was behind the dealings, with Peters acquiescing. In the end, the money Alliluyeva spent to pay off Peters’s debts and those of his grown son was wasted on luxuries and the son’s failed farm. Alliluyeva would spend the rest of her life trying to keep herself and Olga, her daughter with Peters, afloat—whether back East, in England, or in the USSR. Olga became the great love of her life.
Both the Soviets and the Americans sometimes alleged that Alliluyeva was a “princess.” In the USSR she had always had food and shelter, which was not a given for millions during the Stalin years. She had attended an elite school. Later, she had access to (relatively) safe abortion, when it was outlawed for other women. For a short time, she even had possession of her passport, which was how she managed to leave the USSR legally. But unlike her brother Vasily, who expected to be treated like a crown prince, Alliluyeva rarely pulled rank, and then usually for a just cause. She was not afraid to get her hands dirty, and preferred to do her own work, even when that included scrubbing floors.
Stalin’s Daughter ends beautifully: I was sobbing in the library. It rarely hits a false note. There are few errors and little in the Soviet section that I would dispute, while I learned a lot in the American part. I strongly urge readers to choose the full version of the book (rather than the abridged paperback). Alliluyeva would have liked it—except perhaps for the title.
Lesley Rimmel teaches Russian and Eurasian History at Oklahoma State University, where she is also a core faculty member of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program. Her research interests focus on political and social violence in the Soviet Union.
Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World
By Katherine Zoepf
New York: Penguin Press, 2016, 258 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Lila Abu-Lughod
Katherine Zoepf introduces Excellent Daughters by telling us that as an aspiring young reporter, she had to overcome her fear that “women’s issues were somehow unserious.” And like many of us who have lived in the Arab world, she found herself cringing at the views “back home.” Deploring the gap between “reputation and reality” Zoepf sets out to show that Arab women’s lives give lie to the simplistic narratives of victimhood that circulate in American media and minds.
Zoepf is thoughtful, modest, and open. Her writing is uncluttered. She has a good eye for social trends and a sensitive ear, and she tells vivid, believable stories about the young women she met in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. She shows not a trace of the self-promotion, polemic, or prejudice that colors so much popular writing on this subject. Even the way she defines her subject sets her apart. Zoepf is concrete and specific. This is partly a function of her book’s origin—in stories she filed as a reporter from particular places at particular times between 2006 and 2011. But it is refreshing, given how many other popular writers pronounce on the generic figure of the American imagination that miriam cooke, professor of Arabic literature and Women’s Studies at Duke University, has called the “Muslimwoman.”
Wanting to know more after 9/11, Zoepf went to London to study. Then she headed off to the region to study Arabic. She didn’t go to Cairo or Beirut, where she might have been tempted to surround herself with other Americans. She went to the great historic Arab city of Damascus which, in 2004, was on the cusp of gentrification. A sense of calm prevailed, maintained, as Zoepf points out, by the (not so) secret police. Dissidence was kept in check, but it was there for a curious stringer to search out, whether in women’s Quranic study groups or nongovernmental human rights organizations. It is hard now to think back to that other moment, that other Syria.
Zoepf is at her best in the later chapters, like the 2010 story about the debates about women’s driving in Saudi Arabia. She captures the density of the political terrain through the variety of opinions she encountered. She talks to women whose supportive husbands had taught them to drive. She talks to activists who insist that fighting for civil rights is more important than driving. She explains women’s enthusiasm for Oprah Winfrey, who assures women that they can overcome their circumstances and create lives of value. And she interviews many women who oppose radical change, ending the chapter with a campaign run by an activist in stiletto-heel sandals whose friend explains, “The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love.” She tells us this book is about the “remarkable women” who are transforming the Arab world. This is a hopeful message-in-a-bottle tossed onto the sea of gloom about Middle Eastern women as victims, in which most American journalism is swimming. Yet the message is mixed.
US policies have been devastating for people living in the Arab world. Zoepf mentions that she reported from Baghdad. Unfortunately she does not include any of those articles in this book. The consequences of US intervention in Iraq—from sanctions to “shock and awe,” regime change, and the legislation of sectarianism—continue to unfold from Palmyra to Paris like some slow motion nightmare. Nothing about young Arab women’s hopes or despair can be understood outside this context, about which Zoepf is silent.
Her book opens instead at a garden party in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2007. A group of young women, former high school classmates, giggle and pass around cellphone photos while eating marshmallows roasted by Filipina servants. They are excited about the first of their cohort to get engaged. Zoepf mentions in passing that some of them are studying law. Later in the book, she will tell us that across the Arab world (just as in the US) more women than men are pursuing higher education. She concludes the chapter with a moment of self-doubt.
When, in 2014, I heard the news that a Saudi woman had opened a law firm for the first time, I reread my notes from the evening in Reem’s garden and was disappointed at how many pages I’d devoted to Disney World honeymoons and how few I’d written about the first cohort of Saudi women students.
However, instead of going on to rectify the imbalance by telling us more about these students (as does Amélie le Renard, a French ethnographer and the author of A Society of Young Women (2014), about how Saudi Arabia’s women university students are reshaping social norms and formations), Zoepf simply says, “Sometimes, I reminded myself, this is what a vanguard looks like: ponytailed and giggling and eating marshmallows.”
Zoepf confesses that some of the young women she interviewed felt betrayed, even angry, when they read her stories. All of us who write about others struggle with how to represent them, especially when we translate across contexts and write for different publics. Should we brush aside their reactions? Or should we take them to heart and correct for what we may have inadvertently missed? Here is where the pressures of the market in the context of American journalism about the Middle East make themselves felt, despite Zoepf’s good intentions.
Zoepf’s publisher, Penguin, probably bet that this book would be as well received as her reporting, since the public has an apparently insatiable appetite for “glimpses behind the veil.” Where would the pressure come from to substantially rethink what she had written years earlier? Who would have asked her to ferret out the stubborn remnants of accepted wisdom that lurk in her account? If Zoepf had been challenged, she might have reconsidered the sexual undercurrent that runs through her stories. Feminists insist that respecting women means not reducing them to sex. But western portrayals of the Arab and Muslim world have long been infused with sexual fantasy, and unfortunately this lives on in western media. Virgins make their first appearance on page four of Excellent Daughters. From then on, we can’t escape sex. Zoepf uses as a chapter title the sexist remark of an old Lebanese professor who told her that young Beiruti women are “the most promiscuous virgins in the world.” How would he know? Why make lingerie sales the fulcrum of a story about women’s employment in Saudi Arabia? And why open a peephole into the marital chambers of the Prophet Muhammad?
Even Zoepf’s good coverage of the January 25, 2011, uprising in Egypt ends up turning on sex. The Egyptian women activists who protested in Tahrir Square were some of the first to analyze the political failings of a regime that was one of American’s best friends in the region. I would have liked to learn more about the substance of their critiques of a regime that had impoverished its citizens with the encouragement of US development experts and international financial institutions, stripping away social welfare policies and labor rights. Instead, the chapter’s focus is on the virginity examinations conducted by the military on some women demonstrators. Public outrage and women’s courageous protests against these despicable arrests and torture indeed altered the debates about women in Egypt. Still, this was only one moment in Egyptian women’s long and varied political struggles.
Had she been challenged, Zoepf also might have managed to resist writing about the hijab/niqab/abaya/chador/burqa. To her credit, she tries. More winningly than any writer I have come across, she domesticates these items of clothing by telling us how she felt wearing them: not a big deal. But expectations must be fed. She excuses her capitulation by explaining that veiling is a subject of discussion and debate among young Arab women themselves. However, the sentiments and the effects are radically different in the American context. A second lesson of feminism—that we should not define women by their clothing or looks—apparently does not have permission to travel East.
Zoepf’s sensible reporting also occasionally gets derailed by standard clichés and double standards. A US reporter covering, for example, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign would be laughed out of town if she presented a lesson about the life of Jesus to explain the sexism Clinton encounters. Yet Zoepf inserts a potted history of seventh-century Islam to explain the dilemmas faced by flight attendants on major Gulf airlines and the legal maneuverings of a fractious criminal family in Syria. She drags out the “clash of modernity and tradition” to explain what she saw in the prisons, malls, and protests of the Arab world.
New York Times columnists have gone far with this rubbish, but Zoepf should know better. In the twenty-first century, no traditional society anywhere is suddenly encountering modernity. People’s material lives in the Arab world have been as deeply marked by the major global transformations of the last couple of centuries as have Americans’. Yet in US journalism and politics, Arabs—especially women—are represented as imprisoned in a world of tradition—thus justifying interventions to bring them into modernity, by force if necessary.
We need journalists. I admire them for saying so much in so few words, and I don’t envy them the pressures they live with to write to short deadlines. But their practice of setting up a separation wall against the world of scholarship is unfortunate. Zoepf’s apparent loyalty to the standard operating procedures of her profession prevents her from considering the extraordinary feminist scholarship that exists now on the very topics she covers.
A bit more sheltered than journalists from the imperatives of the market, scholars enjoy more of the “right to tell people what they do not want to hear” that George Orwell defended in the preface he wrote to Animal Farm (1945). As I read Excellent Daughters, I kept thinking how interested Zoepf would have been in the books that I read and teach about women in the Arab world. Not everyone need be fluent in Arabic. Not everyone has the temperament or resources to spend years researching a subject. But we can all learn from those who do.
With these academic studies to hand, Zoepf might have been better able to resist the demands of American political interests and publics. For example, Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (2013) reveals surprising facts about “underground sisterhood” of the Qubaysiyat—an organization of pious Muslim women—that Zoepf was frustrated not to be able to penetrate. Grewal spent a year in Damascus just before Zoepf arrived. For her research on transnational Muslim education, she met American women converts who were pursuing their religious studies with the Qubaysiyat. The shadowy sisterhood suddenly appears less foreign, less inaccessible.
What might Zoepf have written about young Lebanese women had she read Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon (2006)? Deeb writes about Shi’a women who live in Dahiya—a very different neighborhood of the divided city of Beirut from the area of nightclubs and the American University campus that Zoepf visited. Deeb explores the lives of religiously committed women who are challenging gender expectations through charity work, religious study and debate, and public piety.
An Enchanted Modern was published a year before Zoepf filed her story from Beirut, just as Israeli warplanes terrorized the Hizballah neighborhood in which these women live, turning it into a mess of bodies, rubble, and tangled rebar. Her second ethnographic study would have been even more relevant. Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut (2013), co-written with Mona Harb, an urbanist, is about how the “excellent daughters” of the Shi’a community are negotiating moral norms now that their neighborhood has risen from the ashes to become a vibrant leisure destination, bursting with cafés and restaurants that cater to the young, fashionable—and pious.
We need scholars most when we find women transforming their world in ways that challenge American expectations or interests. Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening (2015) came out too late for Zoepf to read. [WRB’s review of Soft Force is forthcoming in 2017.] Its author, Ellen McLarney, like Zoepf, grew up in a religious family in the Midwest, but took a different path. Her meticulous translations from Arabic and respectful analysis of an influential body of Arab women’s writing is enlightening. She enables us to understand the ways some Arab women are trying to think through the social and spiritual responsibilities of being Muslim. Philosophical, intellectual, and political discussion about the proper relationships between Islam and democracy, citizenship and virtue, or motherhood and leadership, is as much a part of the “secret lives” of young women in the Arab world as roasting marshmallows and dreaming of Disney World.
Why should journalists deny themselves access to this scholarship? Journalists and scholars need each other, especially if we hope, as Zoepf rightly does, to persuade people that ordinary women everywhere are transforming their worlds.
To see Lila Abu-Lughod’s list of “Ten Great Academic Books to Read on Women in the Arab World,” see www.wcwonline.org/women=books.
Lila Abu-Lughod is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University where she teaches anthropology and women’s studies. Her most recent book is Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013), and the thirtieth anniversary edition of her first ethnography, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, with a new afterword, was just published in September 2016.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith
Edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks, with Barbara Smith
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015, 324 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by A.J. Verdelle
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around reads with the definite tone and portraiture of a documentary film. Subtitled, Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, the book constitutes a significant historical document as well as an intertextual biography of Barbara Smith, a feminist activist and collective builder; a one-time elected official in Albany, New York; and a contributor to progressive and feminist causes as a scholar, publisher, and author. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around collects primary documents—including interviews, campaign posters, photographs, reproductions of broadsides, and impressively contextualized statements from some of the collectives and groups Smith either participated in or founded. Smith, well-known among feminists and lesbians and writers of the 1970s and beyond, has a definite place in history and herstory. This documentary text proves her agency, her initiative, and her mettle.
Smith’s is not a household name, but her work fits alongside womanist activists such as Alice Walker, feminist organizers such as Gloria Steinem, and radical lesbian theorists such as Cherríe Moraga. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around reveals and re-establishes Smith in her rightful place, at the vanguard of the progressive, feminist, and black feminist movements. Like any original, and like many activists, Smith worked with energy and a keen sense of innovation. The book chronicles black feminism and lesbian activism almost from their recorded beginnings. Depending on the organization and the task at hand, Smith changed hats: she could be an architect, a general contractor or, in the trenches, a construction worker. As an organizer, a pioneer, and a collective member, an agitator and dreamer, Smith was important because she was willing to wear a hard hat, in revolutionary times.
Smith’s activist story begins in the 1970s, an era characterized by civil rights struggles that continued from the 1960s, and legislative advances that were hard-fought and not completely successful. In historic civil rights negotiations, black women often played supporting roles. As feminism was being formulated and advanced, black women’s issues were, in the main, excluded. Smith involved herself strategically, founding organizations and participating in actions designed to increase black women’s visibility and the viability of black women’s causes.
Probably her most well-known work was with the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist group active between 1974 and 1980, whose statement of principles is still widely read and taught in women’s studies courses as a foundational feminist document. The statement was written in 1977 and first published in Zillah Eisenstein’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, in 1979. It broke a trend of erasure and silence.
“We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression,” it explained, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. When people like black women (and men) face multiple oppressions, their struggles combine geometrically, not arithmetically. Multidimensionality creates struggles that are vaster and more complicated than a simple sum of their parts.
Reflecting on the founding of the Combahee River Collective, Smith writes, We were very clear that we were building something really, really important. The Combahee River Collective was originally a chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization, so we knew we were part of something bigger than just what we were doing in Boston. We were networked with Black feminists in different parts of the country: up and down the East Coast, and also in Chicago and California. Wherever we could find each other by phone or by letter. … I always knew we were changing history with the work that we were involved in. Most of us had been involved in other Leftist movements, so we had a sense of historical meaning and how organizing develops and moves forward. We knew we were not operating in a vacuum.
She goes on to explain that
Understanding your own identity and making connections with others who don’t share that identity is part and parcel of the same work. We were much more able as Black women and Black lesbian feminists to connect to others because identity politics gave us that confidence, it gave us that grounding … . We were less easy to intimidate, and because we an an analysis, we understood how the isms and the oppressions connected to each other.
The Combahee River Collective promoted a mode of analysis that we would now call “intersectionality.” The statement also helped to popularize the notion of “identity politics.” Smith explains that together, these ways of thinking
assert that it is legitimate to look at the elements of a combined identity that included affiliation or connection to several marginalized groups in this society. There is meaning in being not solely a person of color, not solely Black, not solely female, not solely lesbian, not solely working class or poor. There is a new constellation of meanings when those identities were combined… Black politics at that time, as defined by males, did not completely or sufficiently address the actual circumstances of real, live Black women.
In 1977, when the statement was formulated, identity politics was new. It provided a platform for women of color to become part of the political dialogue. The statement astutely identifies the suspicion with which people viewed identity politics. In the 1970s, black women, long relegated to subservience and subjected to notions of inferiority, presented themselves more assertively and more collectively as whole human beings, defined by common characteristics and unquiet humanity. Barbara Smith was a voice in the cadre of black women who stood up and spoke up and eschewed subservient silence. The Combahee statement noted that feminism must create space for both white and black women to articulate their needs and advocate for their rights. That black women would demand to be seen, considered, named—this was revolutionary, even though from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the general confusion around this notion seems mildly, if not wholly, ridiculous. The statement explained the collective’s process:
We empowered ourselves by looking at our situation, making observations about it, drawing conclusions, and saying, We’re here, we deserve to be here, and understand that when we talk, we’re talking from all these different experiences.
In the winter of 1979, the active and energized Combahee Collective turned its attention to the murders of several young black women in Boston. Smith reports that the initial six murders—ultimately the total rose to thirteen—were reported in the back of the Boston Globe, along with the racing results. Smith reports that she was “steaming” with outrage that the murders happened, that the women’s bodies were found in garbage bags near a shoe factory, that the press did not handle the murders as urgent or significant. The question, Smith writes, was “bandied about”: Who is killing us? At first, Smith aptly and insightfully reports, the question was handled as if it was rhetorical. Then, the Combahee Collective joined with CRISIS, an organization led by Marlene Stephens, an activist from Boston’s South End neighborhood, to organize around the unsolved murders. Smith identifies the work the two organizations did together to publicize and demand a solution to the Boston murders as an active expression of solidarity, built through practice.
Smith presents a sad coda to the organizing—although it does, in a way, testify to the power of feminist activism. She points out that the coalition’s campaign against the murders is not generally remembered, and that “[t]he reason I think the analysis and the response diminishes or disappears is because we don’t have these organizations, these little cells of radical women of color, to keep that stirred up and to keep that consciousness uppermost and going.”
In 1980, Smith and other black feminist activists founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, whose mission, unique at the time, was to publish and preserve stories by women of color. It was, Smith wrote in her essay “A Press of Our Own” (in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies ), “to be both an activist and a literary publisher.” Probably the press’s most significant titles were This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (second edition, 1983); and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Smith (1983). The press published poetry and short stories by women of color such as Cheryl Clarke, Mitsuye Yamada, and Gloria T. Hull, as well as the Freedom Organizing Pamphlet series, which included works such as Barbara Omolade’s The Real Lives of Black Single Mothers (1985). Through Kitchen Table, Smith and her colleagues promoted discussion of the issues facing black women, across the spectrum of marital status, standing as a mother, and sexual preference.
In 1982, Smith, together with co-editors Patricia Bell Scott and Gloria (Akasha) T. Hull, published the anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. With its eye-popping green cover, it enlivened and invigorated black women’s studies in a way that cannot be overstated, as it helped to “create, validate and institutionalize black women’s studies,” writes Smith. The book practically shook the shelves of women’s bookstores—institutions that were beacons and havens in those days.
Smith’s work on intersecting oppressions has inspired and influenced new generations of activists. One such organization, the Black Feminist Working Group, created a twelve-point plan based on the examples of the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panther Party. Smith explains that the Crunk Feminist Collective—founded in 2010, as “a women-and-men-of-color scholar activist group,” according to Crunk’s Facebook page—is “in the historical continuum” of the kind of feminist work she has devoted much of her energy to. Crunk’s mission says that it aims to “create a space of support and camaraderie for the Hip Hop generation.” According to Smith, the women in Crunk are individually involved in political work, but unlike Combahee, the Crunk collective as a whole is not politically involved. Nonetheless, the Crunk Feminist Collective’s “Letter to Patriarchy” is well-known and influential among women’s studies scholars.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around is full of primary documents, with minimal interpretative language and maximum historical presentation of fact: it’s an amazing web of Smith’s connections and involvements and alliances and innovations and essays and speeches and activist outcomes. This is why the documentary format suits. The moments need capturing, with the same kind of functionality as photographs. The interviews here function something like still images: they reveal voices and contributors to the work, much as portraits recall the people who stood in the trenches, who fought the good fight. Smith’s commentary in interviews and notes on the primary sources provides insight into her progressive and activist work, developed during a time when feminism was evolving, when progressive causes were sprouting and becoming critical and urgent, and when the contributions of black women were definitely needed to augment the feminist argument. Jones and Eubanks’s editorial transitions bridge two eras: a past that was devoid of black women’s concerns, and a future that—thanks in part to Smith’s energy, intellect, and commitment—contains both woman-centered ideas and strategies for black women’s involvement in emergent feminism.
Smith performed her work in good company. Many feminists and scholars were involved in the groups she founded and in which she participated. One of the real benefits of Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around is encountering the voices of so many black feminists. Cited throughout are Smith’s partners and co-activists, including editors Eubanks and Jones; scholars Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Alexis Pauline Gumbs; and progressive activists Elsa Brown, Deborah King, Barbara Ransby, Vera Michelson, and Jooh-Hyan Kang. The book’s inclusive format expresses Smith’s collectivist and inclusive politics and approach to organizing.
Activism requires work and insight and effort, and plain dogged persistence. It requires timing, acumen, and charisma. An effective activist must possess the communication skill and drive to see the need for change and to advocate for transformation, revolution, adjustment, forward motion. She must have the charm and the wherewithal to convince others to join the effort. She can’t quit. Activists who make widely observable change are rare—but Smith is one of them. She has worked consistently over decades to acknowledge the struggles of black women and to establish a black feminist critique, insisting that progressive and feminist conversations include black women’s realities and that black power is not only about black men. As an elected official in Albany, New York, Smith worked in multiple communities, beyond those of identity.
The offerings in Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around will attract eye-witnesses: women who were directly or tangentially involved in the organizing the book documents and who want to see how history has registered their activities. The documentary form will also engage students, the studied, and the curious—those who want to learn how a historical transition evolved. And the book contextualizes, explicates, and answers basic, urgent questions: who did what, when, and why? How were ideas developed, how did they become interconnected, and how did black feminists like Smith make change happen? Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around ensures that Smith will be rightfully embedded in the history of the causes she worked for so diligently and unceasingly. The work continues, a reality to which the building and release of this book attests.
A.J. Verdelle writes novels, essays, and reviews books. She teaches creative writing to undergraduates at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Maryland, and in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.