“Redneck Crazy”: Country Music’s Misogyny Problem

August 20, 2014 by So to Speak · 1 Comment
Filed under: Music, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics 

By Liz Egan

In June, Slate ran a piece about country music’s “bro problem” and singer Miranda Lambert’s aim to take down “bro country,” a (not so recent, but recently more obtuse) trend in country music to objectify women, aggressively corner them in bars, and reduce them to tailgate-dancin’, truckbed-climbin’, flip-flop floozies in tight jeans and/or cut-offs (depending, I guess, on the season).

But these days it’s not Miranda who’s saving the day. Newcomers Maddie and Tae are the dark horses riding up to restore order to country music. The lyrics to their debut single “Girl in a Country Song” takes direct aim at the male megastars who’ve been bankrolling their musical success on the willingness of the prophetic “girl in a country song” to get drunk enough to go for a ride in some dude’s truck.

It’s a gutsy move to take on the likes of Luke Bryan, Chris Young, Thomas Rhett, and Florida-Georgia Line (who do not seem amused by the song at all). And it’s clear from the two women’s comments about the song that they are conscious of the tight-rope they’re walking, playing down the song’s feminism by rejecting that label (a problem I’ve written about before) and cutes-ing up their language with oh-my-goshes. But as the biting role-reversal scenes in the song’s video make clear, these two ladies are tired of the sexist, objectifying nonsense that has lately been dominating the country scene (“Conway and George Strait never did it this way,” they lament).

Calling out “bro country” in a song is a step in the right direction, but first we need to be clear about something: Country doesn’t just have a “bro” problem. It has a straight-up misogyny problem.

The first time I heard Tyler Farr’s song “Redneck Crazy” on the radio, I found it tasteless and uncouth. Then a disturbed young man went on a deadly misogynist rampage in Isla Vista, and now I change the station if it comes on. To summarize the song’s events: Girl dumps boy. Boy stalks girl at her home and taunts her new boyfriend (“I didn’t come here to start a fight / but I’m up for anything tonight”). Boy’s misery is girl’s fault, because, “you know you broke the wrong heart baby / and drove me redneck crazy.”

The similarities between the tragedy in Isla Vista and the song’s sense of entitlement to sex with a woman, and the violent response to not being able to have her, are too eerie. “I’m about to get my pissed off on,” Farr sings, and each verse just gets creepier from there. (In fairness, the song’s subject seems to want to attack both the woman he can’t have and her new man, singing “He won’t be getting any sleep tonight.” Which, in fairness, only makes the Isla Vista comparison even more frightening, given the majority of that day’s victims were men.)

There is a joke in the South about women who shoot their husbands: “She just snapped” is the punchline. I guess in this case, going “redneck crazy” is meant to be the male equivalent of that phenomenon. Yay, equality? The problem with both defenses is they shift blame for a violent crime onto the victim. Not a great fix, considering violence is never the answer and victim-blaming is never okay.

Country music has a long history of celebrating traditional gender roles, roles that progressive society has been moving away from but country music is slow to let go of. In defense of country music—and the women of country who are also topping the charts—it is trying to shift this norm so that women can be empowered, too. But because men in country music are stereotyped for their way of exerting power over women and other men through violence, violence is therefore the medium by which some women in country music, like Miranda Lambert, are trying to assert their own independence and strength.

I’ll be the first to admit that Miranda Lambert is my country music idol, but I also have to admit that many of her songs are uncomfortable examples of the violent female revenge fantasy. Her 2010 platinum hit “Gunpowder and Lead” is about a woman who gets tired of being beaten up by her man, so she shoots him:

He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll

Don’t that sound like a real man
I’m gonna show him what little girls are made of
Gunpowder and lead

While I give this song credit for the important observation that a “real man” isn’t an abusive one, I’m not sure two wrongs make a right here. This song is from the album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, an image that has become integral Lambert’s brand. Her latest hit “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, is yet another effort to assert female power by drinking as hard and being as bad as the baddest man in town. But is matching men drink for drink and punch for punch really the only avenue available for women who want to be taken seriously in country music?

Many responded to the Isla Vista shootings by pointing out that misogyny hurts men as well as women. This excellent graphic art captures how problematic it is to associate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. When it comes to taking a jab at a man, Lambert has some impressively emasculating zingers. In “Hurts to Think” she sings, “you’ll never be half the man your mama is,” a brilliant two-for that praises a woman’s strength by diminishing a man’s. But while lines like this might seem refreshing to female listeners who are tired of the same old weepy “I can’t live without a man” bit, we have to stop and admit that these sentiments aren’t helping anyone demonstrate strength. When we allow these destructive, misogynist sentiments to become part of the ether of our everyday lives, we encourage a culture that tolerates and perpetuates the cycle of violence between men and women.

I know some will argue these are “just songs,” or “just fantasies,” and therefore their content is not meant to be taken seriously. But it is a serious matter when everywhere you look in country music, you see men and women embracing attitudes toward each other that, well, just ain’t right. I’m picking on Farr and Lambert in particular, but they’re not alone. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” cites a man’s inability to keep it in his pants as justification for property destruction, and frankly I have a hard time finding Scotty McCreery’s uninvited arrival at a woman’s home late at night to be as friendly as I’m sure he means it to be. The list goes on.

And yet: these songs come on the radio, and more often than I care to admit, I turn it up. It’s confusing to be a socially progressive woman with an addiction to country music. I’m just as guilty as anyone who ever declared “Blurred Lines” is a creepy tune while bopping along to it anyway. I don’t want to stop listening to country—for one thing, ignoring it isn’t going to make the industry’s misogyny problem go away. So I’ll keep listening, but I’m going to start talking, too, with my fellow country music fans about why these songs are not okay. Maybe if enough of us speak out, the artists I admire like Miranda Lambert will follow Maddie and Tae’s brave lead and find more empowering and less violent ways to make country music a better place for women and men to showcase their strengths and successes. Until then, I’ll keep struggling with the decision to turn it up, or turn it off.

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Liz Egan earned her MFA in fiction from George Mason University in 2014, and served as Fiction Editor of So to Speak 2013-2014. Currently Liz is a co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an inclusive feminist chapbook press that is a project of Fall for the Book and the George Mason MFA program. She lives near Jackson, Mississippi, where she teaches writing and works as Writing Center Coordinator at Millsaps College.

 

Wearing the Feminist Badge: Final Words From Our Outgoing Editor in Chief

Last fall, my sister sent me a link to a posting on a website called Imgur (pronounced Im-ih-ger). I don’t remember what the post she sent me was about, but I do remember how I felt I had found a sort of window into the internet. With a swipe to the left or to the right, I could explore all the “most-viral” images on the internet for that day, often accompanied by stories or shared experiences from various Imgur users themselves. Feeding off of the popular, user-generated website Reddit, Imgur focuses on community, with users voting through “upvotes” or “downvotes” what material makes it to the front page of the site.

What one will most commonly find on Imgur is pictures or videos of adorable animals, a funny (or not so funny) meme, a tutorial for how to make the best pepperoni calzones. One can browse the site without ever making a profile or username, and this is what I did for some time, visiting the website through its phone app when I had a spare moment in a waiting room or in line at a store.

I was in bed checking the site when I came across a post that has given me a sizeable amount of unease for the past several months. In it, a group of young women hold up hand-written signs declaring why they don’t need feminism. Their reasons range from, “because I believe in equality and not in entitlements and supremacy,” to “I respect men. I refuse to demonize them and blame them for my problems,” to “I am an adult who is capable of taking responsibility for my own actions.”  One can see why I immediately created a username and began commenting on this post like my life depended on it.

What I most wanted to point out was that none of these young women seemed to have any idea of what feminism actually is. Somehow, the idea of equality for women has become tied up with these misconstrued notions about the domination of men, the rejection of personal responsibility, and a culture of victimhood. I can’t say how this transformation took place (it seems to have something to do with tumblr, which is another content-sharing, online community, but I can’t dive into that hole right now), but the fact that there are women out there who outright reject the title of feminist is appalling to me, especially when these women so clearly are feminists themselves.

Equality is the bottom line of feminism. You can respect men without also demonizing them (I do it all the time!). Of course you are a capable adult; you can thank the generations of women who fought against the infantilization of our sex for being able to publically declare such a thing. These young women, who took to a public forum to proclaim their independence, personal responsibility, and strength, are utter and complete products of the waves of feminism that have been crashing against American culture for the past 200 years.

The issue is, however, these women don’t know that. And, they shy away from the “feminist” or “feminism” terms. These words have become tarnished, covered in the muck of misandry and fanatical, misinformed rebuttals. I spoke about this in my last blog piece, where I mentioned how I had to combat these misconceptions amongst my own family members, but the problem with the young women on Imgur is even stranger to me, mostly because they are feminists. Reluctant as they may be to wear that badge proudly, it is still tacked onto their bodies somewhere, albeit under layers of ignorance and/or confusion.

This rejection of the feminist identity leads to an even more problematic aspect of this trend: the self-centeredness of it all. I can only conclude that each of these young women has led a life free of sexual harassment or of judgment based on how they look or on their sexual habits. That each of these young women has never had to worry about accessing an education or a driver’s license. That each of these women has never had her reproductive rights challenged or been trapped in an abusive relationship. How blessed these young women are, and how infuriating that they cannot see past their own life experiences into those of others who may not have been so lucky.

Beyond the problem of being unwilling to accept the feminist title, these young women are spreading the dangerous idea that women have reached equality in the US and in the wider world. What they are saying, by rejecting the mantle of feminism, is that there is no more work to be done. They are turning away from the gang rapes that happen with stunning frequency in India and elsewhere. They are looking past the millions of women who are unable, for any number of reasons, to make choices about their bodies and when or if they have a child (or how many). They are saying, “okay” to the overwhelming number of rape kits that escape DNA analysis. They are saying: If you are not me, or like me, you do not matter.

What is most important for these women to understand is that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself (though wearing the feminist badge like a crown would be a welcome fashion statement). What does matter is that, if they see the rights of other women (of other people!)  being challenged, though theirs may not be, it is important for them to say something, to do something, to recognize the wrong where there is wrong and confront it.

There’s a fear that goes along with defining oneself as part of a certain cause with perceived expectations. We prefer to live as sketches, erasing and redrawing the lines of ourselves when we feel threatened or uncomfortable. But, I would argue that the young women on Imgur would have to do very little revising to find that they fit into a feminist way of life. And that’s all I wanted to say to them, and to our readers: Like it or not, you’re a feminist. Now, go out there and own it.

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Michele K. Johnson graduated from George Mason University with her MFA in poetry in 2014. While pursuing her degree, she taught Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition at the university, and served as Editor in Chief of So to Speak. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in the Ampersand Review, the Ucity Review, OVS Magazine, THRUSH Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.

 

Secrets in the Dark

by Melanie Lynn Griffin

The woman has been roughed up. There’s a bruise on her cheek, and her blouse is ripped. Her long brown hair has been hacked off with a pair of scissors, by her own hands, and several of her teeth have just been brutally yanked out by a tooth-seller. A crowd of filthy men and women taunt her, shoving her along a darkened street. Her voice breaks into a raw, bitter wail. “There was a time when men were kind, when their voices were soft and their words inviting.”

If you’ve ever seen Les Misérables, you probably recognize this gut-wrenching scene. Fantine, a factory worker who has just lost her job, has sold her hair and teeth to pay for her young daughter’s room and board.

Anne Hathaway plays the role in the latest film version of Victor Hugo’s story of love and hate in the French Revolution. She’s painfully beautiful in this scene, bruises dark on her pale skin, eyes sunken and hopeless as she’s pressured into prostitution to support her daughter.

A French army officer has just finished doing his business on top of her. She’s belting out this song, and I can hear people all around me sniffling in the dark of the movie theater:

“I had a dream my life would be

So different from this hell I’m living.

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

Even the guy behind me with the annoying belching issue seems to be crying. He starts breathing badly, and I wonder if he’s having a heart attack or something. I’m considering turning around to ask if he’s OK, but I don’t want to embarrass him if he’s crying.

His labored breathing suddenly evens out, and I hear the sound of a zipper being closed. Apparently he successfully put himself in the French officer’s place and had his own way with Anne Hathaway in the dark.

“Why didn’t you move?” My therapist’s face had that inscrutable look she gets, and her question seemed as impenetrable as her expression.

“Move?” I echoed. “Why didn’t I move?” An irrational shame nudged a blush up my neck as I tried to remember: Did I even think of moving?

Doctor Z nodded and leaned forward in her chair, elbows perched on her knees and fingers pressed together in a teepee under her chin as if trying to keep her mouth from dropping open.

“Well, I thought about it for a minute, but — I know it sounds stupid — at first I couldn’t believe it was happening. Like, I must be wrong. Then I thought that he was obviously a mess, sick, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” I paused, and my therapist raised her eyebrows. “Wow,” I said.

“Yeah, wow,” she said.

“But I felt trapped. Moving didn’t really seem like an option.”

“Why don’t you journal about this? Writing always helps you. I’ve heard you use those words before, feeling trapped, not trusting your own experience, not being able to take care of yourself because you were worried how it might make someone else feel.”

Doctor Z pulled some papers out of her black bag, the signal that our time was up. I wrote her a check and drove home with only half my mind on the road. “Why didn’t I move?” I kept hearing the question.

First entry:

Tough therapy session. Why didn’t I move away from that guy in the theater? Why did I feel so powerless? The other thing I can’t figure out is why I was afraid to tell anyone, even my friends. Like I had done something wrong, or the whole thing was so disgusting and ugly that I had to hold it in, protect the world from it. Not pollute other people’s lives with my pain. Just like when I was a kid. Don’t tell anyone what’s going on in the house; don’t tell the neighbors about Daddy passing out. Put the vodka bottles at the bottom of the trash bag. It’s all a secret I have to keep.

My mom. The queen of denial. She’s the one who taught me how to keep a secret. When she caught me on the couch with my ninth-grade boyfriend’s hand down my pants, she said, “I know I didn’t see what I just saw,” and she never said another word about it. Mom didn’t even want to tell the doctor that Daddy was an alcoholic when he was lying on life support in the hospital! As if they couldn’t tell. I broke the secrecy code and told the nurse our shameful secret. Daddy died anyway.

Now that I think of it, the voice in my head at the movie theater saying, “That couldn’t have happened. I must be wrong,” was my mom’s voice.

“Good work,” said Doctor Z, when I finished reading my journal entry. “What else?”

“Well, I guess my family was so focused on our shame and secrecy that what I needed didn’t matter much. It’s like I learned that I’m not worth taking care of — I don’t believe I have any rights. Mom never took care of her own needs either — trying not to upset my father always came first. That’s why I was more worried about how that guy might feel if I moved than I was about my own feelings.”

I picked up the cushion on the sofa and began messing with the stitching. “Have I ever told you about when I lost my virginity?” I asked, though I knew I hadn’t. It all came out in a rush. “I was sixteen and I was at a party in an upstairs room with an older guy, kind of a friend. We were messing around and he got really aggressive. I said no to him, told him to stop. I said I didn’t want to, but he went ahead and I thought, ‘Oh well.’ I wanted him to like me, and I guess I figured it wouldn’t be worth the fight. I’ve always felt ashamed of that.”

There was a silence while we sat with my shame and I continued to unravel her cushion.

“You were sixteen, Melanie. Just sixteen.”

“Yes.” More silence. I couldn’t look at her.

“You’re an adult now. You can take care of yourself. You don’t have to be a victim . . . you have choices.”

“Yes, I have choices.” I did not sound like an adult. I sounded like a little girl parroting her mother’s directions. I waited for further instruction.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Doctor Z reminded me, as she often must.

I exhaled a laugh, set the cushion down, and looked her in the face. “Yes, I do have choices.”

Final entry:

I am going back to the theater tonight. It’s been nearly two months since Les Mis, and I was telling Dr. Z how mad I was at that asshole cause I felt like he had stolen my theater from me. I usually go every week, but the thought’s been making me nauseated.  “I can’t imagine sitting in that seat again,” I told her.

“Well,” she said, “you could sit in a different seat.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, laughing at this obvious solution. “I have choices.”

So I’ve been planning on choosing a new seat. But that’s still making me mad. He stole my spot and I feel l like a victim. So I think I’ll march right down that aisle and sit in my regular seat, twelve rows back on the left. If somebody sits behind me, I can always move.

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Melanie Lynn Griffin leads writing workshops and spiritual retreats. Her writing has appeared in Sierra magazine, AARP Bulletin,WildEarth JournalOutside In Travel Magazine, and a 2014 anthology entitled Answers I’ll Accept. She holds a Masters in Creative Nonfiction from Johns Hopkins University and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from National Cathedral College. A complete list of publications and her blog Writing with Spirit can be found at http://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/


 

A Christian Feminist Weighs in on Reproductive Rights

I’d like to weigh on matters of faith and reproductive rights.

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s so-called “contraception mandate” or to offer exemptions for religious, for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby. I’m content to let the justices interpret the Constitution; however, as a progressive Christian, I’m also entitled to my interpretation of the Bible.

I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, yet my faith community puts me in regular contact with homeless people and families who live well below the poverty line. Nearly five years ago, an Afghan refugee family sought our community’s help. It was this experience that solidified my strong feelings on reproductive choice.

At the time I met her, Azin* was a 27-years-old mother of three children who had an eighth grade education. Her husband’s hourly wage barely covered the rent.

Azin wanted to attend school to learn English in order to find a better paying job to help support her family, but her youngest was an infant.

Being a small congregation, we didn’t have the means to address all of the family’s financial needs. Our outreach committee felt we could best help the family in the long term, by assisting with Azin’s education. We raised funds that were matched in part by a national religious non-profit organization. We paid tuition for ESL classes through the local community college. We covered babysitting expenses when county funds ran out.

While driving Azin to and from classes, I heard more of her story. She had married at 16 in Afghanistan, where the Taliban threatened to rape unmarried girls. After fleeing the country at 18, she and her husband lived in a refugee camp in Turkmenistan. While there, she had two children. The UN then relocated them to the United States where they had no family and didn’t know the language. After settling in the US, she made the decision not to wear the hijab in order to distance herself from the Taliban’s zealotry, a decision that inadvertently estranged her from many in the local Afghan refugee community.

Born a white woman in the United States to college-educated parents, I know that I had huge advantages over Azin. After earning a BA, I married and started working. My first employer did not cover contraception, but I had access to affordable options through the local Planned Parenthood. I left the workforce when my daughter was born and could afford to attend graduate school while staying home with her.

Azin was ten years younger than I with few material resources. I admired her tenacity and looked for ways to help. I passed down my son’s clothes as he outgrew them, so she could use them for her youngest son. I tutored her daughter in reading one summer. These acts seem small in comparison with the advantages I had by virtue of my birth and ethnicity. Every action that I took to help her humbled me; I did not deserve to have all of the privileges that I had anymore than she deserved her circumstances.

Azin appreciated every small sacrifice. And I discovered that when I had the opportunity to minister to her, I felt a sense a purpose that was far more rewarding than the everyday reality of changing dirty diapers and chauffeuring a preschooler – a reality that in and of itself was a privilege.

“Would you forgive me if I had an abortion?” she asked over the phone one afternoon, three years after I first met her. She feared she might be pregnant.

I paused, holding the phone between my shoulder and ear. I assessed the situation: having another child would stretch the family’s already meager resources and slow her already part time studies. Azin loved her children; she wanted more than anything to make their lives better. I knew how hard it was to attend classes with young children. She was working so hard in a world where the deck was stacked against her. I understood this.

Taking a deep breath, I reassured Azin that her body was her body, not mine. When we got off the phone, I went out and bought her a home pregnancy test to take until she could get an appointment to see a doctor in a low-income clinic.

She wasn’t pregnant. She didn’t have to face that decision, but it did bring to light a huge flaw in our congregation’s mission efforts. It’s nice to compartmentalize a person’s needs: food, shelter, healthcare, education; yet in the end, they are all connected. In order to get an education and find a job to help support her three children, Azin needed reproductive rights.

When I approached our pastor about the pregnancy scare, he offered to pay for condoms out of discretionary funds. I thanked him on Azin’s behalf, but silently wondered about how practical a form of contraception it was for a married couple. Eventually, I came up with a different solution: I would pay for an IUD device that would be effective for five years.  I know in my heart that my pastor and outreach committee would have paid for this if I had asked; however, it was something I wanted to do – to offer Azin the same reproductive rights that I was afforded so easily.

Today, Azin is still attending ESL classes with the help of a Pell Grant. She hopes to eventually become a dental assistant. Her youngest son participates in Head Start and will begin kindergarten next fall. They have a long road ahead. Azin’s desire for an education has inspired her children to do well in school. In the coming years, I look forward to helping her prepare for job interviews and attending her children’s high school and college graduations. She is a blessing in my life.

Having Azin as a friend has solidified my views on faith and reproductive rights: access to birth control helps women shape their futures. For my Christian peers who feel that reproductive rights are contrary to what the Bible teaches, I would point to Jesus’s choice to heal the sick on the Sabbath against strict religious codes of conduct. When the Pharisees approached Jesus about stoning a woman accused of adultery, as per Jewish law, Jesus responded by saying that anyone without sin should cast the first stone. The New Testament contains many more examples of Christ ministering to people rather than upholding dogma.

Paying for Azin’s contraception was one of the most feminist and Christian acts of my adult life; and I will happily continue to support her as she exercises her reproductive rights.

*Not her given name

*opening photo by Kyle Brenner/News Tribune

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Wendy Besel Hahn has an MFA in Creative Writing from GMU. Her nonfiction has appeared in Front Porch, Chaffey Review, and The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. To find out more about her work, visit her website: www.wendybeselhahn.com.


 

Midwife Jennie Joseph on Race, Power, and Changing Birth in America

Childbirth and Feminism aren’t words that are often paired together in the same sentence. The focus for most feminist movements is on the decision whether to have a child or not, and whether a woman has full agency in the decision when deciding not to carry a pregnancy to full-term. But what about the women who decide to have a child? Where do you find feminism active and engaged? In small feminist circles, you can find women advocating for empowering birth experiences, for doulas and birth plans and a bill of rights of sorts for laboring women. And in even smaller circles, you find women banding together to address the awful truth in this country that if you are a woman of color, simply by virtue of your ethnicity and NO other factor, you are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. Why is this circle so small? Why are we not agonizing EVERY day over this very real fact that our sisters are not all treated equally? Why are we not marching in front of the ACOG offices and in front of hospitals that aid diverse populations of women in childbirth? Why are we not pissed off ENRAGED about this uncomfortable truth?

In honor of International Midwives Day, we decided to shine the light on someone who IS making this her mission in life. Jennie Joseph is a British-trained, West Indian-descent midwife who cares for women in Orlando, Florida at her birth center and who lectures widely on a focused, successful strategy for reducing disparities in childbirth outcomes.

I first met Jennie Joseph when she came to a maternal mortality summit that I and a few other women put together in Washington D.C. a few years ago. I’d heard word on the street that she was a midwife who was doing something about it. I heard her name whispered with reverence, with awe, because damn, she was taking on this often silenced and uncomfortable truth about birth in America, and she was making a difference in the lives of the women who found their way to her birth center.

Jennie speaks with a soft British accent and, surprisingly given the weighty subject matter she tackles fearlessly, a great deal of humor. She’s been known to say, “In America, they don’t expect to hear a funny little English accent coming out of someone with such dark skin.” She may be right. And it may be part of why (and I’ve seen this) she’s able to make American obstetricians sit up and take notice (a sad commentary in and of itself). The outcomes at her clinic are so phenomenal, that I’m surprised that the chiefs of obstetrics from every American hospital are not lining up on the tree-lined street in Orlando where her clinic is located. They should.

It’s hard to pin Jennie down – she’s tireless in her mission to provide good care and tireless with her lecturing on the JJ Way® at conferences across the country. But StS is thrilled to have pinned her down long enough to get her take on the important work that she does:

Sheryl: You were born and raised in England and received your nursing and midwifery training in London. Tell us about your first experiences in the United States. Did you experience culture shock? What do you remember most about those first years?

Jennie: I was very surprised when I arrived in the United States. Unfortunately, I had not done any research. I knew about Walt Disney World and I knew Orlando to be a beautiful city—I was very excited about the possibilities, for my American husband to be and I. I came to America in May of 1989 and was married in August of 1989, and settled in, except that I did not realize that I wasn’t going to get any job in any hospital as a midwife in the state of Florida. I was trained as a hospital midwife and had practiced in both hospital and homebirth settings but did not know that there was such a controversy about midwifery and the midwifery model of care in the United States.

The culture shock that I experienced was that as a Black woman of West Indian descent; I assumed that I was culturally aware and able to manage assimilation into the American experience. I knew about the differences amongst races and I knew about racism, having experienced it myself. I figured that I would be able to understand how to navigate and negotiate the American way. In my personal life I experienced a lot of culture shock and certainly in my professional life on so many levels. It was beyond explanation. I felt alienated and marginalized as a professionally trained hospital-based midwife. I felt marginalized as a midwife who believed in empowerment for women and independence. I felt marginalized in that I wasn’t a registered nurse. I was a direct-entry midwife that had hospital experience and had built a career around access and privilege in the hospital system. I was marginalized from a place of being a Black woman with an English accent.

In many ways it was extremely difficult and I know that I could not have been prepared for it ahead of time. It had to be worked through in real time. I remember feeling isolated and was depressed for a good few years. I got to the point where I hardly ever wanted to say anything because I didn’t want the reaction of shock and surprise when I started to speak. So it was very difficult. I do remember I began to explore the history of midwifery. I began to understand the cultural perspective of midwifery, particularly in relation to the grand midwives of the South and their eradication during the latter part of the 20th century.

Sheryl: What originally drew you to midwifery as a career?

Jennie: I was absolutely called to be a midwife. I knew at the age of 16 that I wanted to pursue that path. I barely knew what it meant and I had no experience at that age.

I graduated from high school and was determined to go into midwifery. So much so that at my age I was told I was too young and had to wait until I was 20, but I managed to get started at 19 because I was so enthusiastic and I wouldn’t let up until I was finally admitted into a program a year earlier than I should have been.

I knew in my spirit that I was going to do this work. I have never done anything else. I’m approaching age 55 and I have been working in midwifery since I was 19.

Sheryl: When did you first become aware of disparities in care for women of color?

Jennie: I began to figure it out two years after I arrived. I was also a victim of those disparities in that within a year of arriving to the United States, the OBGYN that I worked for managed to dictate to me that because of my endometriosis—which I had suffered from for many years—the only answer for me was to have my uterus removed.

As a knowledgeable and informed patient with a background in women’s health, I was still drawn into that place where I felt unable to speak for myself and felt concerned not realizing the industry where women’s bodies have been historically taken advantage for gain and for power. I didn’t understand the racial connotation of hysterectomy in the United States.

At the age of 30, like a sheep to the slaughter I had my uterus removed and he took both my ovaries at the same time.

Sheryl: Tell us about your method of maternity care, the JJ Way®. How did it come about?

Jennie: I developed the JJ Way® model as I grew my midwifery practice from a homebirth practice into a birthing center practice. I realized that there were very few women of color coming into my homebirth practice. I felt that I could reach women of all races and socioeconomic statuses if I could open the idea of taking care of women in the prenatal period regardless of where they wanted to deliver their baby.

Image from Beautiful! by Jennie Joseph

My experience was that the women of low income or women of color who were not educated or supported in natural birth felt more comfortable in the hospital environment. For them there was some benefit in having their babies that way. So rather than try to convince them and to cajole or try to force on them my way of thinking, I decided to open a practice where I could provide good quality midwifery care for women of all races that was holistic, patient-centered, empowered, safe, and culturally competent and yet those women that chose to have their babies in the hospital still got to deliver their babies with a physician in the hospital.

That helped me to realize that the benefit of that work was that, regardless of where they were giving birth, they were having healthy full term infants, they were empowered, actively planning their births, and breastfeeding after delivery. So I realized that was something that I could offer and I have developed it into a fully replicable model that could be used by any midwife, physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner in any clinic or birth center setting.

Sheryl: Can you share a few memorable stories about women you’ve served who have benefited from the JJ Way®?

Jennie: Over the years, I’ve seen much change in many of the women and their families. Ultimately, even though it’s intangible—it’s difficult to say if it’s because of a specific aspect of the JJ Way® or the combination of all of the points—something has shifted in the way these women are in themselves, with their baby, with their children and with their families. One woman comes to mind that came to me at 19 years old with her first baby, the father of the baby in tow. They were certainly at least acting excited about the birth and the upcoming pregnancy. They were video taping the first prenatal visit, having a good time. It all fell apart very quickly. It was not a good relationship, they broke up and she was unsupported through her remaining pregnancy and birth. She was very attached to our practice and came to literally depend on us, which is not the goal of the work, but she would call us every day very much wanting information and education—she was soaking it in. She had a very lovely and empowered birth, at term and went on to come back to support the work by volunteering. She eventually started nursing school and she’s currently a bachelor’s nurse. We know that the influence of how we supported her through her pregnancy made the difference for her to be able to empower herself and raise her child in a different way than perhaps she would have with the absence of that work.

Sheryl: What do you think modern feminists most need to know about childbirth in the United States? Internationally?

Jennie: I think all women need to know about having their power in the birth room and the importance of being prepared and educated throughout their pregnancy so that by the time they reach childbirth they know what they particularly want, what helps them feel safe, and what helps feel in charge of the experience—and it doesn’t look the same for everybody.

In the absence of that knowledge, women go into their labor and delivery experience at the whim of whoever is attending. And that is dangerous. In many cases, that can kill you. The lack of knowledge and preparation can put your life in jeopardy because you are so unaware and unable to stand for yourself.

I think that using support such as doula support, having childbirth education and lactation education, involving family and friends in your birth team, and having a very solid plan is the difference between life and death. Internationally, I think women need to understand their specific birthing practices and environments and, again, choose for themselves what they want.

Sheryl: What do feminists get wrong about birth?

Jennie: I don’t think I can address that. I don’t think anybody gets anything wrong about birth. We know what we know and we act accordingly. At this juncture, so many of us know so little that we don’t have a place to stand or any ability to make that difference for ourselves or for our sisters in birth. With that we are somewhat left helpless and at the whim of those who do have power and information.

Sheryl: Tell us about your vision for the future of maternity care.

Jennie: I believe that we can transform maternity care in the United States by changing the way we approach birth in the first place. Until we can embrace the idea that birth is not an illness but actually a transformative time in that woman and her family’s life. Until we remove the fear, because this is a fear-based industry, and provide women with the tools to navigate this fear-based industry we will not be able to see a change.

I strongly believe from the grassroots up we can influence and bring about the necessary changes to re-empower birthing women and families in America. We need education at a level that is accessible, that is warm, non-judgmental, non-punitive, and non-lecturing where women can share stories and experiences, as well as learn from an angle of understanding that is pertinent to their lives.

The educators need to change. They need to be the same women from the communities from which they hale so that there are peer level educators as well as more formally trained educators, but everyone working from the same place.

Finally, if we cannot break down the system that stands—and it would be a very difficult and arduous task—then we need to create a system outside of that for those women that are healthy, low risk and are not expecting complications in their birth. That system could be midwifery, but it could also be public health. It could be private hospital-based services, birth center-based services, or community-based services, or of course, homebirth.

I have a very broad and hopeful vision for the maternity care system in America but I believe it has to be purposeful and collegial. We have to work together to bring about a change, but before that we have to agree that there is a need for change and at this point I don’t think we have that.

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Jennie Joseph was born and raised in England and received her midwifery education from Barnet School of Nursing & Midwifery in affiliation with Edgware General Hospital in London. Always a pioneer for women’s special healthcare needs, Jennie brings 26 years of combined expertise to help pregnant women achieve the birth of their dreams. Visit her on Facebook and check out her website.

 

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