Photo credit: Deirdre Fishel, producer of documentary, “Care”
MINDY IS GETTING UP TO SPEED! WHEW!
In the past month, I’ve begun interviewing “guests” for my new podcast, Who Cares?. More on that in a moment…
As a social scientist, I’ve probably interviewed 1,000 people in my lifetime, but NOT for an on-air production! It’s REALLY DIFFERENT! For one thing, when I ask someone a question, my inclination is to nod my head and say a slew of “uh-huh’s” or “that sounds hard” (or great or ANYTHING!). That’s kind of typical in a conversation, no? To let people know that we’re listening well and that we care and understand what the person is saying.
BUT NO – for this podcast, I’m zipping my lip and NOT responding while someone is talking. This runs counter to “who I am”, but hey, I’m doing it! In fact, you may have noticed that there’s a genre of podcasts that are all about a back-and-forth conversation. But for Who Cares?, the guest is front-and-center. I ask lots of questions, but for the actual podcast episode, you won’t hear my questions. Instead, my contribution is in and around what the guests are saying. For my sociologist friends reading this, you’ll recognize the form – use a quote, then provide an analytic comment, something that carries the thread to the next quote. For the podcast, we’re writing a script (woohoo) that includes plum passages from the guests that will capture plum quotes from one person, juxtaposing music, some more commentary and then, other people’s plum quotes..
PREPPING FOR INTERVIEWS!
In preparation for the interviews, I set up pre-interviews with my guests. My amazing Co-Producer, Helen Barrington, gave me a very no-nonsense checklist which I find extremely helpful. It includes advice to the guests about not bonking the desk with buttons or an emphatic gesture because the mics are very sensitive, taking off noisy jewelry, staying hydrated (because if your mouth is drying, there will be popping sounds!) – and a reminder that I will not be interrupting them, and that after they complete a thought, we’ll take a pause (for the “tape”), and then I’ll carry on with my next question.
THE ACTUAL RECORDING! SOME INTERVIEWS ARE IN THE STUDIO…
PRX Podcast Garage, where I’m recording “Who Cares?”
Sitting in a recording “booth” (room) at PRX Podcast Garage is a gas! I’ve done two interviews in person so far – meaning the guest comes to the studio at the Garage; we sit at the desk with a couple of mics hanging over us,and we talk. The advantage to doing an in-person interview is that we can make eye contact, even if I’m exhibiting excellent control (!) in NOT talking when they’re talking. My facial expressions can let them know I’m there, as I respond to their stories (like SURPRISE, empathy, HORROR, happiness…!).
So far, I’ve interviewed two women who are caregivers with very different stories. Of course, I have fallen in love with both of them…
They’re funny and smart and insightful. They’re both caring for spouses, with one of them, Laurie, providing 24/7 care in the home for her husband, who has Parkinson’s Disease. And the other caregiver Laura, who cared for her wife at home for years, who now has advancing Alzheimer’s Disease and needs intensive care. So she now lives in a local assisted living facility. I’m thrilled to say that our team now includes an Assistant Producer, Alex Braunstein, who joined me last Sunday for a visit to the assisted living facility, along with Laura’s dog Panda, who is a very popular pup in the facility!
This Sunday, I’m interviewing a geriatrician who is the medical director for Uphams Elder Service Plan based in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Can’t wait!
…AND SOME INTERVIEWS ARE DONE REMOTELY! THAT IS REALLY COOL!
So far, my remote guests are based in New York City. So they go to Argot Studios, run by Paul Ruest. “My people” (meaning Helen Barrington) calls their people (meaning Paul), and off we go. The NYC-based guests are recorded in NY and I’m recorded in Allston, MA – and then the two “tapes” (yes, the podcast world still quaintly refers to recordings as “tapes”!) are synced by Helen, like putting two puzzle pieces together.
SPONSORS FOR THE NEXT SEASON! ANY IDEAS???
On another front, we’re beginning to think about SPONSORS!
OY VEY...Just when we have raised enough money to create the pilot series, we need to think about what’s next. Please help me avert a major migraine headache… If you have ANY ideas/suggestions OR know anyone who works for organizations and/or companies that would be a good fit to SPONSOR or UNDERWRITE a podcast, please let me know! HINTS: Any entity that serves older people or caregivers or people with disabilities. Maybe they make products or provide insurance or they fund cool projects.
LAUNCHING THE PODCAST!
All this talk about preparation and raising money for the next step, but what about the ACTUAL PODCAST? We will be LAUNCHING the podcast in OCTOBER! Stay tuned, especially for local folks, because it will be a LAUNCH PARTAY!
Thanks again for all of your support! And TAKE CARE!
Activists from Caring Across Generations, which advocates for quality jobs for care workers
GAYLE: Mindy Fried, your new book Caring for Red tells a story of you and your sister taking care of your 97-old father in the last year of his life in an assisted living facility. Before we talk about your experience caring for your dad, Manny, tell me a little about him. Who was this colorful character? After all, he earned the nickname “Red.” Sounds fiery to me!
MINDY: My father was a person with many lives. As a young man, he was a labor organizer for the United Electrical Workers union where he organized factory workers. That was when industrial labor was still predominantly based in the US, and not in third world countries where labor is cheaper. At some point, he joined the Communist Party. I’m not sure how active he was or for how long, but certainly at that time, being considered a “Communist” was tantamount to being a terrorist in our current political climate. In1954, when I was around 4 years old, he was subpoenaed to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a very traumatic experience for him, and for my whole family. He was “blacklisted”, meaning that when he applied for jobs, he was turned away. Eventually, he was hired by a Canadian company where he sold life insurance for around 15 years. That’s the kind of work he did through much of my childhood. But he was also writing plays based on his experience as a labor organizer, and he returned to the theatre as an actor, something he had done years before. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, he was subpoenaed by HUAC again. That was tough, but times had changed quite a bit and the ramifications weren’t quite as dire as they were the first time around. He ended up going back to school when he was in his 50s. Really impressive, since he had only one year of college under his belt. He went straight from finishing an undergraduate degree to working on a Ph.D. in English. His final career was as an English professor at SUNY Buffalo State College. You might say that nothing kept this guy down. He was a great role model in that sense.
GAYLE: How did your family survive the impact of the McCarthy period?
MINDY: I grew up with two people who were angry with each other often, but it was quiet anger. That was hard. I was lucky to have a best friend who moved in down the street from me when I was 5 years old, and her family basically adopted me. She liked my house because it was quiet, and I liked hers because it was lively and warm and loving. She became my “non-bio” sister, as we say; we’re still close today. Her parents became surrogate parents, and I am ever-grateful for that. They were just very attentive; my parents were often distracted. It was great to have another family a few doors down the street. That was one way I coped. But as a family, we also believed that my father made the right choices, in how he challenged HUAC, and continued to stand up for his beliefs. Having a sense of doing the right thing goes a long way.
GAYLE: Another name associated with Manny Fried, is “Morrie.” Six years before your father died, he played the character MORRIE in a play called Tuesdays with Morrie. As the story goes, a University graduate visits his former mentor, a sociologist who is slowly dying of a progressive disease. You write that your father inhabited that role fully, and that it helped to bring you closer together. Tell me why.
Well first of all, it was a big deal to play Morrie, not only because it was a great opportunity for my father, but also because he got to perform at the Studio Arena Theater, which had blacklisted him for many years. For me, the other exciting thing about him getting this role was that Morrie was a sociologist in my own department at Brandeis University. I knew Morrie, and the moment that my dad got the part, I saw it as an opportunity for the two of us to connect around his preparation and performance. I introduced him to Gordie Fellman, one of Morrie’s closest friends and colleagues from Brandeis. And I introduced him to a couple of Buddhists and sociologists who called themselves “Monday’s with Morrie”, as opposed to Tuesdays with Morrie (upon which the book and play were based). We also watched the Frontline TV series that Ted Koppel produced about Morrie, where Koppel interviewed him over the period of time as he was dying of ALS. When my dad came to visit me, he would have these meetings, and he would run his lines with me, and he would practice a grapevine dance from the play in my narrow hallway. It was just this really sweet thing that we connected around, and then obviously I always went to see him when he acted, so it was great to see him in the play, and he really did a beautiful job. People are always kind of amazed when they see old people function in any way, but seeing him excel at inhabiting this character – I think it was a really powerful experience for the audience and he pulled it off; he did a great job.
GAYLE: In your book, you describe a father who was loving – someone you felt deeply close with – but also a man who was full of himself. Did you feel resentment about taking care of him in this last year of his life?
MINDY: Well I think that this a really important question because as adult children, many of us have mixed feelings about our parents. The answer is “no”, I didn’t resent him. But it took me many years to understand him, to find equal footing with him, to find my voice with him, since he was a forceful speaker, sometimes controlling, and sometimes discounting of opinions that differed from his. He once told me that if I wasn’t sure about something, just guess, and that 99% of the time I’d be right. I was in my 30s when he gave me this advice, and by then I had his “number” and realized that this was sort of ridiculous. But he actually believed he was right most of the time! That said, I had deep respect for him and for his values and choices in life. He centered my world, for many years. In “exchange theory”, as it applies to families and relationships, the notion is that parents care for their children in one period of time, and later in life, when elder parents need support, children care for their parents. When it came time to care for my father, I did it with all my heart.
GAYLE: How did the father-daughter relationship change as Manny aged?
MINDY: My father and I were very close. Like most people, he was a flawed human being. He made serious choices in his life that impacted our family. But I had a deep respect for him, and we had a lot in common politically. For me, being part of the Women’s Movement in the 70s helped me better understand that despite being a good guy who was committed to social justice, he was pretty “old school”. I got frustrated with what a poor listener he was, and how I often had to fight for “air time” in conversations with him. But I did learn how to argue and debate because of him. I believe he felt I could be anyone or anything I wanted to be. And while he wasn’t comfortable “having or expressing feelings”, he was emotionally raw much of his life. That was one effect of McCarthyism on his life, and I understood that about him. Over the years, I understood enough of who he was to accept his shortcomings and his vulnerabilities and to just kind of let it go and say, “ok, here’s this person in the last bit of his life,” and to really be as fully present for him without losing myself.
GAYLE: You chronicle in your book many attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to find a place for your father to live that would meet his growing care needs AND offer the kind of life that fulfilled him. This was not easy, and sometimes your father was less than helpful. Tell me what worked, and what didn’t?
MINDY: I think one thing that worked was that I put myself in his shoes. For example, when we went and visited this super groovy retirement community that was connected to a college and he said to me, “there is absolutely no way I am going to move in there”. I imagined myself living with people that we met with, and I thought “I couldn’t do that either, this would be kind of horrible”. Not that they were bad people; it just felt foreign. These weren’t people he would choose to be friends with. I think that probably the most important thing as somebody gets older is to respect where they’re coming from. And I think it’s important to start thinking about these issues early on because you know, if you are trying to make a decision when it’s dire, the whole process of decision making is much more rife with emotion. I believe that talking about these things before you are in a crisis really makes a huge difference. And that helped us a lot.
GAYLE: Your father lived in Assisted Living for the final year of his life. Am I correct?
MINDY: Even though the book uses a one-year time frame, it was actually a year and a half that my sister and I cared for our father. It worked really well, until it didn’t. We learned what assisted living was able to provide for him as well as its limitations. Ultimately, in the last few months, he needed round the clock care. But he was able to live and die in his small apartment in assisted living. As an ethnography, Caring for Redprovides a real sense of life in assisted living, the norms and values that drive human interaction, the hierarchy of staff, and the structures that define the experience within this institutional form of care that aims to provide a home-like environment.
GAYLE: Can you describe what Assisted Living is?
MINDY: Well, people think of it as kind of a hybrid health and home service, but in fact it’s really just more home than health oriented. It’s a place to live; there are regular meals; there often are activities; and staff provide services to residents – up to a point. Some assisted living facilities have medical staff; others don’t. We chose a place that had some nursing care, including medical people who delivered medications, and there was actually a doctor, a geriatrician, who came by once a week. But we had to pay for medical care because it was beyond the basic services offered. We ended up supplementing even more services in order to avoid having to send him to a nursing home. But that’s a longer story…
GAYLE: You were also a long-distance caregiver. How did you manage your father’s care from afar?
MINDY: I was lucky that I had a sister to do this with, so between the two of us we shared the caregiving work. We visited every weekend; we talked on the phone all the time; and we were on the phone constantly with caregivers, as well as his friends to help arrange his social life.
GAYLE: What do you hope for your book? How do you hope people will be affected by reading it?
MINDY: I guess if nothing else, I’d like it to contribute to a more open conversation about the trials and tribulations of caregiving work. While Caring for Red includes references to scholarly work on caregiving, I will be lucky if people feel more of a heart connection to the issues, particularly those people who are caring for an elder parent. We all have a range of feelings towards the people who cared for us when we were young. It’s important to recognize that there are a lot of people who love their parents; there are some people who hate their parents; and there are some people who have mixed feelings about their parents. Taking care of them in those final throes of life is jarring; AND it’s an opportunity to reconcile unresolved feelings; it’s an opportunity to treat elder parents with dignity and to make that last piece of life worth living. It’s also something that we’re all going to face at some point so I think that how we care for our parents is also a role model for how the younger people around us can – and hopefully will – care for us.
There’s no ultimate how-to book on caring for our parents. We all learn by what we see around us. So I’d like a dialogue to be stimulated about these issues. Because it’s very hard work – unpaid caregiving labor – and people don’t talk about this shit because it’s like, ‘oh it’s too depressing’, but hey, it’s life! We’re all going to die, you know, and somebody’s hopefully going to take care of us, so let’s think about how we want that to look within families and within society.
I also hope that academics will use this book in classes on aging, on death and dying, and on anything related to the life course. Moreover, Caring for Red is an ethnography, “set” in assisted living, so I hope it will be used in methods classes. And finally, for those who take interest in the history of facism and particularly, in the McCarthy era, the book presents quite a story, which I believe we must not lose.
GAYLE: Thank you, Mindy Fried. The deeply moving and insightful memoir – “Caring for Red”- is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
Beginning today, I will be “going home” to Mindy’s Muses, a blog that I created over five years ago. Over past two years, I have had the honor of writing for Feminist Reflections (FR). I began as a Guest Author, having been invited to share a few posts from Mindy’s Muses. Then one of the FR Founders, Gayle Sulik, and I decided to collaborate on a series of posts about Black Lives Matter, because we felt it was important to write about how white allies could support this movement. After a relatively short run as a “Guest” on FR, I was invited to join as a Contributing Author, one of five writers who churn out provocative essays weekly. Mindy’s Muses went on an unofficial “semi-hiatus”.
Being a member of FR has strengthened my understanding of the challenges of “doing public sociology” for academic Sociologists. Because I’m an Applied Sociologist and don’t work in academia, I don’t have pressure to publish in peer reviewed journals, nor do I have constraints on what I write about, other than those I self-impose (!). I have been inspired by my academic colleagues who navigate these demands, and maintain a commitment to reaching an audience beyond academia.
Over the past year, FR experienced some turnover, as a few of its Founders moved on. Tristan Bridges and I became Co-Chairs of the Editorial Board, and in that role, I learned more about the logistics necessary to maintain the hum of weekly posts by a variety of authors. We also added two new writers: Kristen Barber and Tressie McMillan Cottom. I can truly say that being a part of FR has been exhilarating. I love reading drafts of essays by my “FRiends” (or “FRolleagues”!), and providing feedback and editing advice. I continue to be in awe of their talent and it’s exciting to discover whatever new essay they publish. And I deeply value their feedback on my work.
Being part of a “writing group” is a different animal than writing solo, as I had been doing with Mindy’s Muses. When I consider what I want to write for FR, my thoughts are thread through a feminist lens that weaves the personal and the political. I know that my fellow FR writers are available for feedback on potential topics as well as on drafts. Writing for Mindy’s Muses is a little scarier and also maybe a little freer. While my writing style generally brings a feminist sociology lens to issues that I face personally, I also allow myself, at times, to write pieces that are just “stories”. Unlike FR, it’s on me if a post doesn’t fly. And while I can reach out to friends to read a draft, it’s more of a favor than an implicit “obligation” or commitment that comes with being part of a group.
So with all this said, it is with a feeling of gratitude that I have decided to take a “sabbatical” from FR. I am thrilled to say that I have a new book coming out this summer: Caring for Red: A Daughter’s Memoir(Vanderbilt University Press). I will return to writing for Mindy’s Muses, which has just moved to a new website on WordPress called www.mindyfried.com. For now, the focus of the blog will have a broad lens – which is care work scholarship – as I feature the important research and writing of some of my colleagues, both in the US and Canada. The blog – still called Mindy’s Muses – will also provide a platform to write about my own experiences vis a vis Caring for Red, and will include excerpts of the book, lists of author readings (including Seattle on August 21st at 3PM at the Eliot Bay Book Company!), and more.
My plan, ultimately, is to provide platform on the blog portion of the website – once my book is out this summer – for other people to share their experiences, thoughts, fears and resources about caregiving for elder parents. My story – as I tell it in Caring for Red – is a universal one, and I hope that my book provides a portal for others to share their stories as well.
THANK YOU to my esteemed FR colleagues: Kristen Barber, Amy Blackstone, Tristan Bridges, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Meika Loe, Trina Smith and Gayle Sulik! It has been a pleasure working with you, and I look forward to continued opportunities in the future. I am still here to run by an idea or read a draft! And finally, a big thanks to Jon Smajda and Letta Wren Page from The Society Pages, who have been fantastic to work with on the technical side of FR business.
My friend’s daughter, Zoe, came home from school one day and told her dad about something that happened in school. She was in 8th grade at the time, and a trainer had just come to her class to conduct a session on sex ed. She and a boy were asked by the trainer to stand in the front of the room and hold two sides of a plastic heart together. One side was blue; the other pink. You can guess which side Zoe was asked to hold. The trainer then told them to pull the heart apart. When the two pieces of plastic were separated, the trainer told the class, “This is what happens when you have sex before marriage. Your heart is broken”.
When Zoe got home that day, she told her dad about it and said that it was “kind of ridiculous…stupid”. But she also felt weird about it. And so did her dad. He reached out to other parents he knew at the school, and what ensued – once the word got out – was a year-long campaign to identify who ran the program, how they got into the school in the first place, and ultimately, how to get rid of them. We discovered that the program was run by a non-profit organization called Healthy Futures, which claims it is “dedicated to empowering adolescents to avoid the health, social, and psychological consequences of risky decisions by equipping students with the tools and educated support system they need to make healthy choices”. Their services included – and continue to include – classroom-based education, peer education through after-school and summer programs, parent education workshops, school and community connections, and web-based resources. But when we dug deeper, we discovered that Healthy Futures was an abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) program that was part of a larger entity in Massachusetts called A Woman’s Concern. Healthy Futures is considered “the intervention side” of this larger entity. Neither the website for Healthy Futures or A Woman’s Concern indicate a connection between these two groups. That can be found on a Christian website, listing them as a volunteer opportunity. The mission statement for A Woman’s Concern’s mission is as follows:
A Woman’s Concern is a Christian mission to women and couples in pregnancy distress, especially those considering abortion due to lack of information and support, and dedicated to providing life-saving help in a life-changing way. To this end we provide competent and caring services that include free pregnancy tests, sonograms, peer counseling and intervention, on-going support and referrals, parenting preparation classes, post-abortion healing and opportunities to learn about healthy sexual values, mature relationships and how to establish a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.
I was in shock. What was a fundamentalist Christian program doing in a public school? And for the next year, I was obsessed with understanding more about this organization and its values, as well as learning about the different approaches to sexuality education. I wanted to understand where Healthy Futures – sponsored in stealth-like fashion by A Woman’s Concern and brought into my daughter’s school – fit along the spectrum of sexuality education curriculum.
The Case against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs
According to the 35-year-old national program, Advocates for Youth, there are a number of reasons abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs don’t work. Of the eleven states that have evaluated the impact of AOUM programs, none have demonstrated a reduction in teen sexual activity. One strategy of these programs is have teens make a “virginity pledge”, promising to remain virgins until marriage. Researchers found that despite their promise, some “pledgers” engage in risky oral or anal sex, and if they do end up having vaginal intercourse, they don’t use condoms. According to researchers, Hannah Brückner and Peter Bearman, even if virginity pledges help some young people delay sexual activity for up to 18 months, once they break their pledge, they are less likely to use contraception or condoms, which puts them at risk for unintended pregnancy and HIV or other STDs.
AOUM programs often contain lies and inaccurate information. A 2004 report about AOUM programs says that over 80% of federally-funded AOUM programs contain false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, claiming that condoms aren’t effective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. AOUM programs also contain false information about the risks of abortion, with one curriculum claiming that 5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile, will be more at risk for giving birth later on to a child with mental retardation, and that tubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following abortions. AOUM curricula blurs religion and science, presenting “as scientific fact the religious view that life begins at conception”. One curriculum calls a 43-day-old fetus a “thinking person”. And AOUM curricula “treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact”. The report concludes that these programs are a colossal waste of federal taxpayers’ dollars.
The major clearinghouse on sexuality education in the US – The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), says AOUM programs are “based on fear and shame, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased views of marriage, sexual orientation and family structure.”
The case for comprehensive sexuality education
According to SIECUS, comprehensive sex education provides students with “medically accurate information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives, including condoms, as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting STIs, including HIV/AIDS”. It teaches young people “the skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances”, as well as how “alcohol and drug use can effect responsible decision making”. Students are provided with the tools to make informed decisions. While these programs stress the value of abstinence, they also prepare students for when they become sexually active.
A series of studies show that the lessons learned in comprehensive sex education programs are critical for healthy decision making during the teen years and beyond. When teens are educated about condoms and have access to them, they’re more likely to use them. When teens practice contraception in their first sexual relationship, they’re more likely to keep doing so, compared to those who used either no method or used a method inconsistently. In fact, a 86% decline in teen pregnancy from 1995 to 2002 is attributed by Columbia University researchers to dramatic improvements in contraceptive use. Only 14% of the decline in teen pregnancy rates was attributed to a decrease in sexual activity.
Researchers Starkman and Rajani found that one-half of HIV infections in the US and two-thirds of all sexually transmitted diseases (STD) occur among young people under the age of 25. By the end of high school, nearly two thirds of American youth are sexually active, and one in five has had four or more sexual partners. Nonetheless, they say, “Despite these alarming statistics, less than half of all public schools in the United States offer information on how to obtain contraceptives and most schools increasingly teach abstinence-only-until-marriage (or ‘abstinence-only’) education”.
A Short history of Abstinence-only–until marriage programs
Over the past few decades, the federal government has poured millions of tax-payer dollars into AOUM programming. The two main federal funding streams for AOUM programs were the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the AOUM portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act. Funding for these unproven programs expanded from 1996 until 2006, particularly during the Bush Administration. Between 1996 and federal Fiscal Year 2010, Congress allocated over $1.5 billion tax-payer dollars into AOUM programs and a significant amount of funding CONTINUES today!
Interestingly, President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill, signed into law in 1996, included a provision for AOUM programs. This funding, created via Title V, Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act, represented a shift from promoting pregnancy prevention programs to promoting abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage, at any age. Sex was to be “confined to married couples”, and abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage became the “expected standard for all school-age children”; with the “exclusive purpose (of) teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity”. In other words, these programs could not – still cannot – discuss, much less advocate for the use of contraceptives, except to focus on their failure rates. AOUM programs are meant teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have “harmful psychological and physical effects”, and that it’s important for people to “attain self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”
After decades of federal support for a number of these programs, the Obama Administration and Congress eliminated the two main funding streams for AOUM programs. Congress allowed the third funding source, the Title V AOUM program, to expire on June 30, 2009. But this program was unfortunately revived as part of the health care reform package, which continues to provide $50 million a year in mandatory funding to this very day!
Power of the parents…
After discovering the AOUM program at our school, a core of parents initially gathered together and we drew up a petition, calling for the school to remove Healthy Futures and demanding comprehensive sexuality education. The support for the petition was phenomenal. Hundreds of parents signed it! Our main concern was our children’s health. We felt that it was inappropriate for a fundamentalist Christian organization, such as A Woman’s Concern, to be brought into our school. And we didn’t like the sneaky way the school had chosen to bring this program into the school. We also wanted to know how Healthy Futures had come to our school in the first place. To our surprise, we discovered that the school’s Vice Principal had brought them. He claimed that a parent referred him and that he had no knowledge of the group’s affiliation.
We presented a statement to the school administration, accompanied by a list of over 140 organizations that support comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, stating the following:
We are concerned that the Healthy Futures curriculum is driven by a very narrow viewpoint and provides inaccurate information regarding the viability of condoms as protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. The (school system) has a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that has served the system well for many years…We believe that it is in the interests of the community served by the (school system) to be given full access to the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum established by the (XX) Public Schools.
We went to dozens of meetings – with parents and administrators – where we presented data on AOUM and comprehensive sexuality education, and we demanded that the Assistant Principal be held accountable. Under duress, he promised to review other options for the following year. We also demanded that parents and students be included in any assessment of alternative options. A number of the parent teacher meetings were very tense, because parents – particularly those who were fundamentalist Christian and anti-abortion – felt personally offended that we were organizing to get rid of this program. We let them know that we respected their points of view, but that a religiously-affiliated program didn’t belong in a public school.
In the end we won! After all our wrangling with the school administration, we realized that we needed to take it one level up, to the School Committee, who shared our shock that a religiously affiliated program had snuck into the school. We also presented our case to the Superintendent of the school district, and as it turned out, his wife was on the Board of Planned Parenthood. Within weeks, the program was eliminated from the district!
With this victory, parents continued to be active in a number of other school-based activities. So, not only were we successful in removing AOUM programming; we also invigorated parent engagement in the school, which spilled over to other efforts to improve the school. I was asked to be on a Sexuality Education Curriculum Committee for the school system, and spent the next year reviewing curriculum which would be brought into the schools. We ended up selecting Planned Parenthood’s excellent comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.
To date, 23 states have rejected Title V abstinence-only federal funding, including: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. This is progress, but the fight isn’t over for other states and school districts. There’s still work to do…
My childhood friend, Gail, is six months younger than me. As adults, that age differential is totally meaningless, but as “pre-teens”, it apparently meant a lot. She reminds me that when my mother took me to the local department store to buy me a “training” bra, she followed suit. “I had to get a bra because you had one”. We both bought Peter Pan “AA”s, ironically from a company named after a boy who never wants to grow up, played in film and play versions by petite adult women.
Underneath the story of the bra (literally) is the story of the breast, that contested body part – shall we say, the ONLY body part – on women that is multiply-functioned to feed, and to receive and give sexual pleasure; a body part which is also the site of deadly disease for growing numbers of women.
Purchasing a first bra is a rite of passage into womanhood, sort of like a secular Bat Mitzvah for young girls*. And how apt that this first bra is called a “training” bar, signifying a broader issue of how girls are “in training” to be women.
While many women – particularly those with larger breasts – may need or want a bra for comfort, the reality is that bras are not anatomically necessary to support breasts. In fact, the history of “the bra” suggests that they are literally shaped by cultural norms, which are historically situated, including the economic climate, the role of technology and available materials within a particular time period. My own drawer of bras – and yes, because I’m terrible at throwing things out, I have kept bras for at least a decade – is a veritable history of the changing notion of women’s beauty, as seen through the lens of the shaping of the breast. I might even go so far as to say that the bra is an element of physical and even social control that tells one chapter of the gendered history of women.
Short history of the bra
There is evidence that Greek and Roman women athletes in the 14th century wore simple bands of cloth covering their breasts while playing sports.
And apparently, medieval bras were called “breast bags”, which had distinct cut cups, in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands. In the 16th century, women in France wore corsets which flattened the breast and pushed it up and nearly out of women’s dresses. The containing and shaping of women’s bodies continued well into the 19th century, as women were corseted from breast to hip. In the Victorian era, women’s waists were tight-laced in order to emphasize the breasts and hips.
An American named Mary Phelps-Jacob is credited with inventing “the modern bra” in 1914. It was made out of silk handkerchiefs and ribbons, and she patented her design under the name of Caresse Crosby. Phelps-Jacob came from a well-to-do family, and she decided to create a bra that was more comfortable for dancing (presumably at fancy balls!).
She worked with her French maid, creating a design by tying two silk handkerchiefs together, sewing on baby ribbons as straps and a seam in the center front of the item. She later wrote: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”
By 1932, the bra company, Warner, introduced the notion of “cup sizes” correlated with letters – A, B, C and D – and added adjustable bands and eye hooks. This is the first time that breasts were no longer treated as one object; rather, they were viewed as two body parts to be enclosed separately. Bras now used latex – as chemists had figured out how to transform rubber into textile fabric that could be woven and was washable.
During World War II, material shortages affected the design of the bra. Some were made out of minimal fabric, called “utility bras”, and they were comprised of cotton-backed satin or “drill”, often in a peachy pink color. Women also sewed their own bras from patterns or magazine instructions, using parachute silk or nylon or old satin wedding dresses.
Some women began wearing “torpedo” bras, which claimed to protect women in war factory jobs. In the 1950s, after the war, women were wearing pointy bras, called the sweater or bullet bra, which drew upon war imagery. The 60s brought the push-up bra.
In 1968, a small group of feminists staged a dramatic demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in Atlanta, to protest the oppression of women. They picketed the event with signs saying, “Let’s Judge Ourselves as People.” And they also dumped symbols of female oppression – girdles, cosmetics, high-heeled shoes, and bras – into a “freedom trash can”.
It’s unclear as to whether there was any real fire at this event, much less women baring their breasts publicly. But the image of bras going into a trash can was captured in a photo, and journalists tagged these women as “bra-burning feminists”, a phrase that was meant to brand them as crazy radicals, but only contributed to the overall protest movement, which catalyzed women for action.
In 1977, the first “sports bra” was created, made out of stretchy rubberized material that held in women’s breasts for comfort so they could do more active sports. That same year, Victoria’s Secret opened its first store, accentuating women’s breasts as objects of sexuality aimed at the male gaze. These two bra types reflected the complex notion of women’s roles in society. In the 1990s, if it wasn’t clear what the bra was intended to do, this “Hello Boys” ad came out for Wonder Bra!
While I know many women who would like to NOT wear a bra, these images are very compelling. Our choice to wear a bra – and particularly our choice about which bra style to wear – is consciously and unconsciously impacted by notions of the so-called ideal body shape, including the socially constructed notion of what it means to be “attractive” or “desirable”, and these notions have changed over time.
So how about today?
In the 2000s, technology has allowed the creation of the “bioform” bra – which provides a consistent shape of the breast that doesn’t rely on what’s underneath it. Pauline Weston Thomas says that this bra “uplifts and contours the breasts so well that it immediately takes ten years off a sideways sagging bust. If you are past 40 with a full cup size you may realize that you have not seen your breasts in this position for twenty years, as it centers and uplifts the breasts.”
This new bra – made possible by synthetic materials and technology-driven design – promises to literally freeze, or even turn back, time! As we age, women’s breasts change in shape and form. They may sag, but the Bioform bra maintains a youthful veneer, or what we perceive as the young breast. The bra defines the shape of the breast, including the tilt and the amount of cleavage (think, push up bras). This bra claims to literally shave years off our age, without any invasive surgery. It’s tantamount to an anti-aging tool, and considered safe. We’re not injecting any foreign substance into our bodies when we wear this type of bra, so ostensibly, it’s not harmful. But is it necessary?
Research on bras…
Based on a study conducted by French researcher, Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon from the University of Besançon in eastern France, “bras are a false necessity”. Rouillon argues that “medically, physiologically, anatomically – breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity.” On the contrary, he says, “they get saggier with a bra”. Rouillon spent many years measuring changes in the orientation of breasts on hundreds of women, ages 18-35, and found that women who did not wear bras had less sag. “There was no dis-improvement in the orientation of their breasts, and in fact, there was widespread improvement”. A 28-year-old woman who participated in his study and stopped wearing a bra for 2 years says, “There are multiple benefits: I breathe more easily, I carry myself better, and I have less back pain”.
So is there anything wrong with wearing a bra? NO, of course not. And if women need a bra for comfort, want a bra because they’re modest, or want to attract men or other women with their breasts – however they want to accentuate them through the use of the bra – it’s all good! Who am I to judge? Nonetheless, some women find “the bra” constricting and would welcome more comfort.