The First Lady 2/2

​When Bill Clinton was sworn in as president, his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to give up her partnership at a law firm. When Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president, his wife Michelle had to walk away from her $212k annual salary to perform the unpaid “duties” of the First Lady. We feel entitled to the time, energy, and economic opportunities of women, to their detriment. Assuming no raises or additional compensation, Obama sacrificed about $1.7 million to be constantly subjected to sexual and racial hatred. 
The position of First Lady has not changed substantially in the 228 years since Martha Washington was dragooned into the role. It is still an unpaid, public, highly structured, and heavily scrutinized job expected of the wives of presidents. It is an inherently gendered title, and I suspect cultural discomfort with seeing a man and former president in the role played a part in our current situation. 

We knew how to say “Madame President” if Hillary Clinton’s popular win had counted, as it should have. But we did not know what to call Bill, how to address a male First Lady. First Lord, First Laddie, First Gentleman? Nothing had the familiar ring of two and a quarter centuries of sexist tradition. For all that she is foreign born, heavily accented, and apparently quite shy, Melania looked the part of “Lady” in our collective consciousness in a way Bill never could. 

In all 49 women – all women – have maintained the social and domestic lives of 45 presidents – all men. I wonder if America might sooner stomach a lesbian couple in the White House than see a man perceived as virile degraded by association with feminity and women’s work. It’s easier to imagine Michelle Obama in the Oval Office than Barack poring over seating charts for a state dinner. 

Melania Trump is a wealthy woman who has grown accustomed to a pampered life as wife of a realty heir, who exploits countless tenants, contractors, and employees. After a year of disruption on the campaign trail, she wanted to return to that lifestyle. Instead we are collectively dragging her to Washington for our service, scrutiny, and hostess services. In return she will lose freedom, privacy, and opportunities to earn income. 

The First Lady 1/2

Martha Washington was a wealthy women, accustomed to a pampered life as mistress of the Mount Vernon plantation, which had over 300 slaves at the time of her husband George’s death. After seven years of disruption spent in army camps and on the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, she wanted to return to that lifestyle. Instead she was drafted into the role of America’s hostess. 

The first president, vice president, and cabinet – all men – decided amongst themselves that the wife of the president would have an official, constant, unpaid role. All of her socializing would be considered a public matter. No longer could she pay or receive social calls from her friends. Now she had a rigid schedule of structured engagements. 

Washington hated the duties foisted upon her at the advanced age for the day of  57, in 1789. Her appearance was constantly scrutinized. She had to have her hair professionally set each morning and to wear impractical yet fashionable muslin frocks. She lived each day in the public eye. At one point Martha declared, “I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else… as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.” 
Thomas Jefferson was an 18 year widower when he was made the third President of the United States in 1801. His daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph performed the unpaid and then untitled job duties of White House hostess. Dolley Madison, wife of fourth president James, was the only spouse or hostess given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress. She is well remembered and beloved by historians and archivists for her successful efforts to save art and artifacts during a White House fire. 

The wife of seventh president Andrew Jackson, Rachel, died shortly after the election, amidst a flurry of scandalous press calling her a bigamist. Her niece Emily Donnelson served as White House hostess for the childless widower elderly veteran general. Eighth president Martin Van Buren was another widower with no daughter. No matter. His son’s wife Angelica could be pressed into service. 

Set In Their Ways

I am from Florida, which is not exactly the South. My maternal family is Southern, descended from  “those Carters and those Lees” as my grandma would say, referencing the peanut farming president and the Confederate general. The (white) South is a region in love with its past and slow to move on. My mom who is not yet sixty graduated from a one room Tennessee schoolhouse. 

I always knew that my grandma was racist. It wasn’t a secret. My cousins, siblings, and I attended multiracial private Christian schools with small class sizes. We had friends with different skin colors, and grandma was bothered by it. One aunt stood up to her, and told her she was wrong, and wouldn’t be teaching her kids to think like that. I was in awe. 

In fifth grade, now at a nearly all white Midwestern public school, I was assigned to interview elderly relatives about WW2. I sent my interview questions and cassette tapes to my grandma and her father by mail. They recorded answers and sent them back. My grandma but not my great grandpa defended Japanese interment camps from their Florida backyard during the early Clinton years. 

Grandma was racist, was always racist. It was never a secret. It was a slight embarrassment: a social faux pas. A visible lace slip under a Sunday dress, a forgotten thank you card. Not something vile or grotesque, not a choice or an action, but a mere accidental momentary lapse of social grace. I can’t remember how young I was when she bragged about her great grandmother, the child slave owner who was gifted a black girl for her eighth birthday. 

Never excuse bigotry and bad behavior because of age. My grandmother has lived through every civil rights battle of the twentieth century, and learned nothing. She has had eight decades to become a loving person and for more than eighty years she has chosen hate instead. The old can’t claim the ignorance of youth. They know better. Hold them accountable. 

Unicorn Hunter Men

Queer women are sometimes made dating prey by a type of mixed sex couple called “unicorn hunters”. Hunters are usually one heterosexual man and one either heterosexual or bi (or tragically closeted and gay) woman. They seek a unicorn: a single attractive bi woman who will fulfill their sexual and romantic desires, equally, without threatening their existing and more important relationship. They want a human sex toy to spice up their dull marriage. (Sometimes they’re just dating but these are marriage people.) 

It is most often the men who create dating profiles to snare a unicorn, and who send messages to bi women, and lesbians and straight women too. So to those men I have a few questions. I wonder if you know what “lesbian” means and if you care. I wonder exactly you think would be “exciting” or “adventurous” for me about being a third in your early twenties starter marriage. Perhaps the thrill of moving past Crate and Barrel vases on IKEA tables before being rushed into the Target decorated boudoir. 

Like your parent cosigned condos, your dating profiles all look alike. Why is that? How did you all come to describe your inexpert slobber technique as “giving” and “very oral”? Why do you inherently look like a terrible lay? From your off-duty Bennigan’s shift leader short-sleeved button-up top to your early 2000’s youth group leader goatee, you were all stamped from the same creepy mold. 

And whose idea was it for your future ex-wife to have sex with another woman, hers or yours? Because if it was yours, honey that poor woman is turning her heterosexual self into fake bi knots to please you. Don’t exploit that just cause you can. She’ll come to hate you for it, possibly right away. And if she was the one who felt something was missing, what makes you think you think you can now satisfy two women? 

Not to change the subject, but where exactly did you get the idea that liking girl-girl porn makes you a “progressive”? And why do you say looks don’t matter as much as personality, but stress the desired “fitness” of your unicorn, while listing no athletic hobbies? And what made you think a ten page job application was reasonable for someone looking for the elusive?

There are many things I will never fully comprehend. The specifics of particular physics, the minutiae of lice reproductive habits, the intricacies of Northern European dance styles. But truly no specimen on this planet nor any other shall ever confound me in its contradictory, self destructive, relentlessness as that creature the male heterosexual homo sapiens. It is a wonder and a marvel to consider I count some of them among my absent relations and ancestors. 

Me and the LGBT “Community”

I know proper English grammar would have the title in reverse order but thinking of how irate this would make my grandma is amusing me too much. 

I am chicken shit scared to date. I am heart pounding, sweaty palms, about to drop on a roller coaster petrified, and I hate roller coasters. One of the (many!) reasons I’m so afraid is that I don’t have a lot of positive history with the “community”. I came out as bi 20 years ago, which Tampa lesbians mostly treated as a heterosexual interloper. 

At best I was grudgingly accepted as an ” ally” to the gay cause, certainly not at all (or as it turns out fully) gay myself. They would tell me how fake bi girls were, how slutty, how they were heartbreakers and hos who were only in it to turn guys on. They said exactly the same crude, cruel things straight guys did.  

When they “accepted” me at all, it was as a gay man’s accessory, his “fag hag”. Never have I ever hated a moniker more than that one. A homophobic slur and a misogynistic insult combined to erase my sexual identity: it was custom made to hurt.  They were wholly unwilling to date me. 

I don’t identify as bi now, so I won’t have that baggage. But I will have the late coming out, the marriage to a man, and the fact that all that bi antagonism has left me a lesbian virgin at the age of 34. No matter how many women swipe right on my profile, I feel like a fraud they’re about to cruelly and painfully reject, and then tell all their friends about. It is new girl, virgin, and mean girls anxiety rolled into one. And I am chicken shit scared. 

Feelings and Responsibility

There is an expression used by optimists and abusers: “You are responsible for your own emotions.” To the optimist this means one can choose to search for the silver lining, to find the good in a bad situation, to focus on what is right in the world. One can chose not to wallow in self pity but instead try to move forward. There is a growing body of evidence that positive people do have greater resilience to minor setbacks, so perhaps for them this responsibility feels natural. 

To the abuser this means, “I am not responsible for how I make you feel, no matter how I berate and demean and assault you. If you feel bad, that’s on you. I won’t be held responsible for your feelings because those are your fault.” It is a further compounding of abuse, denying their victim the right to even hurt from the wounds they inflicted. The two meanings couldn’t be more different. 

It’s important to remember that optimists mean well, and that abusers don’t. The optimist is like Mr. Fred Rogers teaching children to “look for the helpers” to be encouraged and comforted in a crisis. The abuser is a villain.  There is a third, I think less common, almost self defensive use of the phrase. Sometimes “You are responsible for your feelings” means “I cannot be a vessel to contain everything bad within you that you wish to expel, a chamberpot for your emotional effluvia.” 

For me I have taken the philosophy that there is no “should” for my feelings. My feelings are. If they are unpleasant I may desire to change them, but I do not owe changed feelings. My emotions are not a debt to the world. The simply are. My actions must abide by many rules, but my feelings are bound by none. It has been freeing, and guilt comes much less often. 

These same words will mean very different things from different speakers and to different audiences. This phrase is one of countless terms we will use and interpret differently based on our demeanor, our abuse history, and our saturation limits with serving as emotional tampons for others. We try to communicate, but we are hampered by our histories. 

Reproductive Economics

I love my son. This post is not about whether or not I love my son. It’s not about love or feelings. This post is about money and the economic costs of having a child in the United States, particularly as a woman or woman-read person. Do not for one moment think my pointing out these costs says anything about my love for my child, or that love should make these costs something I never speak of. Such thinking harms children most of all. 

The United States has very weak worker protections. 28 states are “Right to Work” states, which really mean an employer’s right to fire for just about any reason. While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 makes it illegal to fire someone for becoming pregnant, most workers don’t know this, and don’t have the means to take it to court. It’s also unlawful to refuse to hire someone because they are pregnant or may become pregnant, but it’s difficult to prove an employer did so. 

If a pregnant worker manages to get or keep a job, federal law may not provide for any maternity leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 only applies to full time workers at firms with more than 50 people, where the employee has been for the past twelve consecutive months, and where the employee has already put in at least 1,250 work hours. Then and only then are birth and adoptive parents granted twelve weeks of unpaid leave. I went back to work the day I was discharged from the hospital, wearing my baby in a sling. 

Prenatal care, labor, and delivery all have really variable expenses depending on location, individual pregnancy complications, hospital rates, and whether the birth is vaginal delivery or cesarean section. The costs range from $9,000 to $250,000, with an uninsured average of $30,000 for vaginal and $50,000 for cesarean delivery. Those are huge, huge costs: a middle class annual salary and several years of lower class earnings, used up in a matter of days. 

I haven’t yet calculated a single diaper, pacifier, bottle, breast pump, bassinet, car seat, carrier, play pen, stroller, or diaper bag. I haven’t included infant Tylenol and teething rings and baby food and board books and nipple shields and lanolin and bibs and burp cloths. I haven’t calculated a babysitter, nanny, or daycare for when the parent goes back to work, or the complete loss of their salary when they realize their take home after childcare would only he $20 a week. I’m not even talking about any expense past the first few months of a baby’s long life. 

When Bernie Sanders, Heath Mello, and other men act as if reproductive rights ever could be separated from economic rights, I have to wonder what United States are they living in?

The United States I’m living in has pay gaps between men and women, whites and people of color, fathers and mothers, thin people and fat people, abled people and disabled people. The United States I’m living in makes teeny tiny unemployed individuals sue giant corporations to prove their rights were infringed upon, and doesn’t tell them how. The United States I’m living in is the only “first world” country without paid maternity leave. The United States I’m living in punishes few things worse than fecundity. 

For half the adult population and all the children reproductive rights is probably the most important economic issue. We’ve seen this the world over: when people have legal access to safe family planning, including abortion, the economy of the nation and the people improves. It is true in southern Africa and in northern Europe. It is true here too. We cannot have two parties of white patriarchy without descending into pure Nazi hell for fucks sake.