Women in Pants Riding Bicycles

The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world. ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896
It’s been 100 years since the idea of setting aside a day for the celebration of the world’s women and demanding their equality was first proposed.

In 1869 British MP John Stuart Mill was the first person in Parliament to call for women’s right to vote. On 19 September 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. Women in other countries did not enjoy this equality and campaigned for justice for many years.

In 1910 a second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. A woman named Clara Zetkin (Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and thus International Women’s Day was the result.

The very first International Women’s Day was launched the following year by Clara Zetkin on 19 March (not 8 March). The date was chosen because on 19 March in the year of the 1848 revolution, the Prussian king recognized for the first time the strength of the armed people and gave way before the threat of a proletarian uprising. Among the many promise he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.  [here]

So even then it was about promises broken and the work of (mostly) women to force equitable, if not revolutionary, change.  If women today wonder why Susan B. Anthony would point to the bicycle as a liberator of women, we need only think back to the extreme limitations on women’s mobility that she had seen go by the wayside in her lifetime.  The bicycle and its female riders once evoked extreme anxiety in folk worried about women’s sexual innocence and purity.  Seems like the sight of women astride a bike with those saddles between their legs could only mean one thing to some peope – women feelin’ happy,  Oh my pearls!

The problem was exacerbated if women leaned forward, rode fast or did not maintain an upright posture when riding.  Special ‘hygienic’ saddles with no inner core that could rub against a woman’s ‘delicate parts’ were offered by manufacturers to circumnavigate this problem.  [here]

Even so, women achieved their right to ride bikes partly as a result of their willingness to ride sitting bolt upright.

The growing numbers of middle class women riding bikes in awkward, long flowing skirts eventually resulted in a revolution in clothing.  In Britain, dress reform was advocated and, to some extent, won – by the mid 1890s women were wearing bicycle trousers and culottes.  When your clothes get out of the way, many things are possible beyond bike riding.

Riding a bike and wearing pants can make a difference.  I wonder what difference changing the words of Canada’s national anthem might have made.  It was a strange, HarperCON kind of offer from Canada’s government and not one they took seriously themselves – apparently Harper cabinet ministers had not been consulted and they made short work of clearing up any possible confusion: no way were they supporting it.  Peter MacKay and Tony Clement said so publicly and Jim Flaherty, asked about the change in an interview with Peter Mansbridge on the budget, could not possibly have been less enthused.  When you make a proposal like this you have to explain, justify and sell it.  Instead, the CONs sold it out. 

Did the howls of outrage from “redneck” members of the CON base scuttle the deal?

“My guess is that while Stephen was out swanning around Vancouver for the Olympics and a lot of women were doing great there and winning a lot of medals and probably some feminist got to him and said, ‘We ought to revise the national anthem,”‘ Flanagan said in an interview.

“He’s always looking for things that can reach out to other constituencies without alienating the Conservative base. So I’m not surprised that he might have seen it in that light, say(ing), ‘Well, here’s something we can do to show that we’re open toward women, particularly women who vote.’

“And maybe he didn’t think through or forsee the reaction that would draw from rednecks like me.” 

Flanagan applauded the about-face. He said national symbols, like the anthem and flag, should “arouse a sense of awe and mystery” and that stems from the fact that they are enduring symbols for the ages.  [here]

Of course it would be “sons” and other “enduring” things that arouse that “awe and mystery” – daughters apparently don’t have the same symbolic power.  It can’t be the issue of change itself that provoked the outcry because the words to the anthem have changed several times and can hardly be called lasting – it’s only a 30 year-long tradition in its present form.  I think the CONs are averse to anything that even sounds politically correct and I think they’re averse to women in pants on bicycles too.

The CONs weren’t the ones who concerned me this time ’round.  I heard more than enough howls of protest in a place that’s been a bit of a safe haunt for me since late December – Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (CAPP).  There were regular knee-jerk comments about the change being merely symbolic (merely?) and a trivial issue and an attempt to win women’s votes by fooling us into thinking the CON’s care.  Women, of course, could not be relied upon to notice that HarperCON really doesn’t give a crappie about women’s equality – even though many of the women CAPPers are also members of an anti-Harper group called “Proud to Be a Member of That Left-Wing Fringe Group Women” and have been working equally hard and for longer than members of CAPP to point out the effects of Harper’s fiscal and social conservatism on women, minority groups, Aboriginal people, children, the disAbled, members of LGBTTQI communities, poor people and just generally groups whose rights are guaranteed by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  We were not about to be bought off by an offer of a bright and shiny thing but it appeared to me that teh menz – and too many womenz – thought our heads could be turned by the promise of  a pretty geegaw.  How’s that for respect? 

There isn’t a woman/feminist I know who had it in her mind that the next issue we would tackle ought to be making our national anthem “gender neutral”.  It’s not that some of us haven’t thought about it from time to time and certainly after having our ears assaulted by the tune for two weeks while the Olympics ran on.  But as others have pointed out (repeatedly and ad nauseum) I don’t think it occurred to any of us that it was either that important an issue or a winnable proposition.  Still, when something is offered that is only right and good, why should we not have accepted?

Symbols are important.  The national anthem is supposed to include all Canadians and it specifically excludes women by mentioning “sons”.  Language is important and gender inclusive language is important.  Solidarity is important too and after being called a feminazi by a man of supposed liberal leanings, I’ve lost a bit of my new-found trust in the importance of “women’s issues” for some of my bro-friends.

But hey, it’s true.  I’d rather have a bicycle and a pair of pants than one of Stephen Harpers flying sparkle ponies.  So shut up!

The Last Generation

From the Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, June 1962

Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority — the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through”, beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.

Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity — but might it not better be called a glaze above deeplyfelt anxieties about their role in the new world? And if these anxieties produce a developed indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present, that something can be done to change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the bureaucracies, the government? It is to this latter yearning, at once the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present appeal. The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today. On such a basis do we offer this document of our convictions and analysis: as an effort in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity in the late twentieth century, an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception of man attaining determining influence over his circumstances of life.


Rebels with a Cause chronicles the movements for social change of the Sixties that began with the civil rights movement and culminated with the angry protests against the US war in Vietnam. Told through the eyes of SDS members, the film is about far more than SDS. It’s about the values, motivations, and actions of a generation that lost its innocence but gained a sense of power and purpose. It’s about a decade that changed America.

The New Cuba

Cuba advances cautiously and in line with revolutionary ideals, say Saul Landau and Nelson Valdes:

Cuban leaders have begun a reform process – combining certain ministries, opening up more farming possibilities and decentralizing certain functions. They have not given clear signals as to what model will emerge. The government appears determined to follow the familiar path of pragmatic and cautious approaches to problems that have arisen over five decades, especially those aggravated because of the 1991 Soviet collapse. As the October 2009 Communist Party Congress grows nearer, the results of discussions throughout the country, the Party may add new wrinkles in Cuba’s half century quest to build a just system. Do not expect Cuba to abandon meaningful socialism.

Beginning with their 1959 revolutionary triumph, Cuban leaders have weaved a unique approach to social change. Western media has ignored that Cuba’s government has operated through consensus. Indeed, western reporters refer to Castro’s dictatorship as if such a concept was axiomatic.

Rather, under Fidel – a master of consensus politics – a collective leadership had to remove the old order and replace it with a just society, a Herculean task that one man could not do alone! To make their own system, Cubans faced the wrath of their former elites and the fury of a northern neighbor. Fifty years later, the US officials still froth at the mouth at Cuba’s audacious disobedience, Raul Castro and partners; including significant numbers of younger people, address a new formidable adventure: building sensible socialism on one island.

Raul acknowledged this on July 26, as he commemorated past successes and referred to needs for more reforms. Perpetual US aggression placed Cuba into a national security mentality, but Cuban leaders can blame US hostility for only some of their problems. Moncada, Sierra and Underground veterans can indeed boast of accomplishing their historic goals.

In 1959, after waging numerous wars and uprisings since the 1860s, Cubans won independence. Cuba then defended its revolution against US belligerence while simultaneously establishing an egalitarian system based on rights -to eat, have housing, medical care, education, etc… As gravy over their meat of success, Cubans danced – and still do — on the world stage: liberators of parts of Africa, slayers of the Monroe Doctrine, purveyors of emergency medical teams providing vital services to Pakistanis, Hondurans and others who suffered from natural disasters. Cuban eye specialists have saved the vision of countless third world people. Cuban artists, athletes and scientists have etched their names on the honor roles of talent throughout the world. And Fidel ranks as one of the 20th Century’s great leaders. When he would enter international public spaces, even some of his ideological opponents applauded – because of the respect he gained by courageously challenging US dictates.

The US media does not report on Cuba. It provides silly coverage of peripheral issues such as posing the Cuba issue as Fidel v. Raul. The story typifies rumor-based US journalism on Cuba. Ironically, the “superior” US press dismisses Cuban media as non-objective.

In a July 31, 2008 NY Times story, reporter Marc Lacey assumed the posture of cosmic knowledge. Lacy sneers at Fidel for having “left the country in economic disarray.” Funny, when did the NY Times refer to US economic disarray as millions suffer pains of unemployment, or devastating sub-prime mortgage madness; 50 million Americans lack access to health care or safety nets! Nor does one find references to “disarray” in rare stories about Honduras, sub Saharan Africa and other third world nations where majorities lack food, education and health care.

Instead of expressing amazement over Cuba’s role in shaping history, and affording millions of its citizens a chance to participate in events, despite their daily hardships, Lacey focuses on “the odd dynamic” between Raul and Fidel. Ahem! The two brothers have been partners in key decision since they attacked Moncada in July 1953. Moreover, in 2005, Fidel reminded the Party to change all that needed change.

The Party has not changed enough, however, to satisfy disaffected Cubans, those unimpressed by past accomplishments. “What do past glories have with to do with the uncertainty of daily life?” they ask. Possessing quality education, high skill levels and good health, they feel they deserve good jobs. Indeed, their entire school experience from day care through doctorates has taught them self esteem and stimulated them to expect the best. But quality jobs are scarce on the island – and in most third world countries. Several Cubans in their 20s and 30s offered glazed looks to references of the revolution’s accomplishments and replied: “I don’t see much future for myself here.” Yes, a qualified Engineer can feel frustrated making pizzas eight hours a day. Frustration can also lead some to become oblivious to the outside conditions that affect their lives. Cuba exists within the larger globalized corporate economy, possesses limited resources, and remains victim of a seemingly eternal US super embargo.

So thousands leave. The US government, bound by Treaty to authorize 20,000 residence visas annually, delivers many fewer. Yet, neither Clinton nor Bush Administration tried to get it repealed. Thus smugglers — not from the island — drool over their profits (about $15,000 per person)  and some Cubans die at sea. These human trafickers took some 6000 to Mexico between October 2007 and April 2008. 3,000 more landed in South Florida between last October 2007 and July 2008. The Coast Guard intercepted 1700 others before they reached the US. Such migration occurs because of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, allowing Cubans – and no one else — to enter the United States. This law undercuts the formal visa process, in which consular officials vet the applicants.  Yet, neither Clinton nor Bush Administration tried to get it repealed. Thus smugglers drool over their profits and some Cubans die at sea.

After Washington imposed an embargo 1962, Cuban issued libretas, ration books in an attempt to assure equality of distribution and a safety net, similar to British policy during World War II. During the “Special Period,” the State lacked sufficient goods to meet its obligations and the US tightened the embargo to further squeeze Cuba’s economy. People began hustling to obtain food. To do so, they broke the law by buying and selling illegally and stealing from the state. Such a situation logically dampened morale.

Cuba’s problems go beyond sagging commitment. This year, the government announced a dramatic shortage of teachers – 8,000 officially partly due to insufficient salary incentives. Fidel, writing from his convalescence, appealed to Cubans to understand such news in a proper context. “We don’t become discouraged by the news of enemies, who twist the meaning of our words and present our self-criticism as tragedies,” he wrote in Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper. Compare Cuba’s education to systems in the United States “and other rich countries,” he urged readers. “They have, yes, many more automobiles, use more gasoline, consume many more drugs, buy more costume jewelry and benefit from the looting of our people, as they have for centuries.”

Teacher shortages paled in comparison, however, to the performance of Cuban agriculture. Last year the government had to import more than 70% of the food offered through the libreta. Cuba now “exports” highly educated graduates, a judicious means to offer educational and technical assistance to needy countries and at times generate income as well.

Over the past two years, Cuba has begun to restructure its energy sector, refurbishing its electrical grid and introducing energy saving programs from light bulb replacement to obtain efficiency to producing solar energy and increasing public awareness on the issue. Imaginative urban agriculture and organic farming experiments have spread in an attempt to become more self sufficient.  Changes in land usage also respond to discouraging levels of food production. The shift includes offering existing and perspective farmers clear material incentives, while eliminating cumbersome bureaucratic procedures.

Labor productivity, which should rank high given Cuba’s levels of education and skill, had sunk to disappointing levels. Inside the Cuban labor movement, healthy dialogue has begun to bring unions more into coincidence with current grievances. This process began earlier when Fidel, in 1987, referred to the prevailing “chapuceria” in the work place, sloppy and unfinished work, which sapped economic and moral strength.

Fidel taught Cubans to understand their entitlements, which meant they had the right to expect the state to meet these rights. Younger generations, however, don’t seem to recognize the State’s severe material limitations, nor are they impressed by Cuba’s egalitarian distribution of its less than sufficient wealth. They complain because the government doesn’t meet their childhood expectations. Cuban television rebroadcasts shows like Desperate Housewives, so Cubans see Americans with plasma TVs; not daily scenes of road rage and Americans going postal. TV and visiting Americans throw extravagant consumerism in the face of some Cubans,

Raul has talked about educating people to Cuba’s real possibilities and about decentralizing to increase efficiency and accountability. Raul – meaning the majority inside the Party apparatus — also called for diverse opinions inside the Party to address what many perceived as a paucity of dialogue. Communist Party leaders understand the need to build a sensible socialism.

The United States remains a constant security threat, which places limits on their imaginations. Indeed, Bush’s aggressive, impulsive shadow will loom until January 2009. Cuban leaders will move slowly, prudently and with grass roots participation. They don’t want to provide any excuse for a Bush “surprise.”

Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. Valdes is Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico.

Castro Speaks Truth to Power

Fidel Castro writes a “reflection” once a week that is published in Cuba’s newspaper, Granma (check it out for some interesting reading).  On May 25th, he chose to address Barack Obama and the speech he made in Miami on May 23rd.  He quotes Obama thusly:

“Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice and repression in Cuba. Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy. (…) This is the terrible and tragic status quo that we have known for half a century – of elections that are anything but free or fair (…) I won’t stand for this injustice, you won’t stand for this injustice, and together we will stand up for freedom in Cuba,” he told annexationists, adding: “It’s time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime. (…) I will maintain the embargo.”

I checked the text of Obama’s speech and that, indeed, is what he said.  Here’s a bit of Castro’s response:

I am not questioning Obama’s great intelligence, his debating skills or his work ethic. He is a talented orator and is ahead of his rivals in the electoral race. I feel sympathy for his wife and little girls, who accompany him and give him encouragement every Tuesday. It is indeed a touching human spectacle. Nevertheless, I am obliged to raise a number of delicate questions. I do not expect answers; I wish only to raise them for the record.

Is it right for the president of the United States to order the assassination of any one person in the world, whatever the pretext may be?

Is it ethical for the president of the United States to order the torture of other human beings?

Should state terrorism be used by a country as powerful as the United States as an instrument to bring about peace on the planet?

Is an Adjustment Act, applied as punishment to only one country, Cuba, in order to destabilize it, good and honorable, even when it costs innocent children and mothers their lives? If it is good, why is this right not automatically granted to Haitians, Dominicans, and other peoples of the Caribbean, and why isn’t the same Act applied to Mexicans and people from Central and South America, who die like flies against the Mexican border wall or in the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific?

Can the United States do without immigrants, who grow vegetables, fruits, almonds and other delicacies for U.S. citizens? Who would sweep their streets, work as servants in their homes or do the worst and lowest-paid jobs?

Are crackdowns on illegal residents fair, even as they affect children born in the United States?

Are the brain-drain and the continuous theft of the best scientific and intellectual minds in poor countries moral and justifiable?

You state, as I pointed out at the beginning of this reflection, that your country had long ago warned European powers that it would not tolerate any intervention in the hemisphere, reiterating that this right be respected while demanding the right to intervene anywhere in the world with the aid of hundreds of military bases and naval, aerial and spatial forces distributed across the planet. I ask: is that the way in which the United States expresses its respect for freedom, democracy and human rights?

Is it fair to stage pre-emptive attacks on sixty or more dark corners of the world, as Bush calls them, whatever the pretext may be?

Is it honorable and sane to invest millions and millions of dollars in the military industrial complex, to produce weapons that can destroy life on earth several times over?

Before judging our country, you should know that Cuba, with its education, health, sports, culture and sciences programs, implemented not only in its own territory but also in other poor countries around the world, and the blood that has been shed in acts of solidarity towards other peoples, in spite of the economic and financial blockade and the aggression of your powerful country, is proof that much can be done with very little. Not even our closest ally, the Soviet Union, was able to achieve what we have.

The only form of cooperation the United States can offer other nations consist in the sending of military professionals to those countries. It cannot offer anything else, for it lacks a sufficient number of people willing to sacrifice themselves for others and offer substantial aid to a country in need (though Cuba has known and relied on the cooperation of excellent U.S. doctors). They are not to blame for this, for society does not inculcate such values in them on a massive scale.

We have never subordinated cooperation with other countries to ideological requirements. We offered the United States our help when Hurricane Katrina lashed the city of New Orleans. Our internationalist medical brigade bears the glorious name of Henry Reeve, a young man, born in the United States, who fought and died for Cuba’s sovereignty in our first war of independence.

Our Revolution can mobilize tens of thousands of doctors and health technicians. It can mobilize an equally vast number of teachers and citizens, who are willing to travel to any corner of the world to fulfill any noble purpose, not to usurp people’s rights or take possession of raw materials.

The good will and determination of people constitute limitless resources that cannot be kept and would not fit in the vault of a bank. They cannot spring from the hypocritical politics of an empire. 

Fidel Castro Ruz

May 25, 2008

10:35 p.m.

Wow.  Politicians in the US sure don’t rise to this level.  Great respect for the opponent coupled with unrelenting logic in destroying his position.  No need to yell, scream or denigrate the other.  And along with that, Fidel is simply correct.

Wish I’d Said This

From an expanded version of a talk given to University Democrats at the University of Texas at Austin on April 16, 2008:

It may seem odd to talk of sorrows around race and gender in politics when we are a few months away from being able to vote for a white woman or a black man for president of the United States. When I was born in 1958, any suggestion that such an election was on the horizon would have been laughed off as crazy. In the first presidential campaign I paid attention to as an eighth-grader in 1972, Shirley Chisholm – who four years earlier had become the first black woman to win a seat in Congress – was to most Americans a curiosity not a serious contender. Today, things are different.

Today Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s battle for the Democratic Party nomination suggests progress. Though the pace of progress toward gender and racial justice may seem slow, we should take a moment to honor the people whose struggles for the liberation of women and non-white people have brought us to this historic moment. If not for the vision and courage of those in the feminist and civil-rights movements there would be no possibility of a contest between Clinton and Obama, and the debt we owe those activists is enormous.


What are the sorrows to which I’m referring? I don’t mean the disgust and distress that many of us feel when we read the blogs, listen to talk radio, or watch cable TV news – places where some of our fellow citizens and journalists wallow in the sexism and racism that still infects so much of this society. I don’t mean the ways in which, even in polite liberal circles, Hillary Clinton is scrutinized in ways no man would ever be. I don’t mean the ways in which, even in polite liberal circles, Barack Obama’s blackness is examined for either its inadequacies or excesses.The attacks on Clinton because she is a woman and Obama because he is black should make us angry and may leave us feeling dejected, but for me they are not the stuff of sorrow. We can organize against those expressions of sexism and racism; we can mobilize to counter those forces; we can respond to those people.

Remembering the radicals

My sorrow comes from the recognition that the radical analyses of the feminist and civil-rights movements – the core insights of those movements that made it possible when I was young to imagine real liberation – are no longer recognized as a part of the conversation in the dominant political culture of the United States. It’s not just that such analyses have not been universally adopted – it would be naïve to think that in a few decades too many dramatic changes could be put into place, after all – but that they have been pushed even further to the margins, almost completely out of public view.

For example, when I talk about these ideas with students at the University of Texas it is for some the first time they have heard such things. It’s not that they have rejected the analyses or condemned the movements, but they did not know such radical ideas exist or had ever existed. These students often do not know that these movements did not simply condemn the worst overt manifestations of sexism and racism, but went to the heart of the patriarchal and white-supremacist nature of U.S. society while at the same time focusing attention on the imperialist nature of our foreign policy and predatory nature of corporate capitalism. The most compelling arguments emerging from those movements didn’t suggest a kindler-and-gentler imperialist capitalist state, but an end to those unjust and unsustainable systems.

The irony is that Clinton and Obama, who today are viable candidates because of those movements, provide such clear evidence of the death of the best hopes of those movements. Those two candidates have turned away from these compelling ideas so completely that neither speaks of patriarchy and white supremacy. These are not candidates opposing imperialism and capitalism but candidates telling us why we should believe they can manage the system better.

Atlantic Free Press

 Robert Jensen  here