Former NOW president defends FSU, takes on critics

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Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 1:10pm EST

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image The following is a statement by Patricia Ireland in response to a December 10 column by FanHouse.com columnist Michelle Smith on Florida State women’s basketball web site promoting the team:

More and more women student athletes have emerged this new millennium as strong young women who are becoming leaders in sports, academics and life — slashing insidious stereotypes that insinuated women who compete in sports somehow forfeit their womanhood.

This encouraging record of progress is why I am so disappointed that a modern, edgy Web site celebrating the Florida State University women’s basketball team – and their dynamic and diverse lives in the classroom, on the court and in society – has generated shallow, knee-jerk criticism in the mold of Don Imus’s disgusting comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team.

Writers such as Fanhouse sports columnist Michelle Smith, who attacked the site in an article headlined “FSU: All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go,” claim that the site and its images are objectionable. What is truly objectionable is the fact that FSU is a top-10 basketball team that’s undefeated, but reporters like Smith would rather talk about pictures of them in dresses.

As someone who has devoted my career to advancing women’s rights, I believe Smith’s criticism is wholly counterproductive. There is nothing wrong with being glamorous — but everything wrong with placing women in a box where they’re expected to conform with someone else’s expectations. Women fought long and hard for Title IX so we could put on a uniform and compete on the court — without having to sacrifice being women.

We didn’t fight against dresses, but did fight against the fallacy that said if you wore a dress, you couldn’t be a competitor. To now suggest the opposite — that if you play sports you shouldn’t wear a dress — is the same kind of backward thinking that in the past attempted to block women from full equality.

We should accept these FSU women athletes for who they are and celebrate their achievements on and off the court. And we should support them not by criticizing what they choose to wear, but by attending their games, supporting their teams and honoring their competitive spirit.

To see the FSU women’s basketball team visit http://www.seminolehoops.com.

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There are 13 comments on this post. Join the discussion!

robm says:

Peeling off a veneer of rectitude, Patricia Ireland reveals that most such criticism is in fact reactionary.

Thanks for sharing this.

Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 4:21pm EST

Q McCall says:

"To now suggest the opposite %u2014 that if you play sports you shouldn%u2019t wear a dress %u2014 is the same kind of backward thinking that in the past attempted to block women from full equality."

I'm not sure anybody is suggesting that -- it seems that people are saying that presenting sexualized images of female athletes is falling into the traditional modes women have been presented in society.

And as someone wrote previously, if each student had dressed in their own choice of attire it probably would not have been so uniform. The fact that they all dressed according to a theme (that had little to nothing to do with basketball) makes it unlikely that they were expressing "who they are" through this shoot.

Friday, December 11, 2009 at 12:53am EST

robm says:

No, what Ireland says can rightly be inferred from criticism like Michelle Smith's. Reading her piece and others like it, I see little allowance for the possibility that such would ever be considered appropriate.

There is more than one theme, too. On the FSU website, besides the dressy photos, I see action, clowning around, so forth. Michelle Smith admits this much in her piece. Alas, never is it proper enough for some.

In fine, this is indeed an expression of who these women are: proud members of a team that, one can safely assume, is compatible with their individual values.

Friday, December 11, 2009 at 11:12am EST

Q McCall says:

From the Smith article: "What's objectionable is the this-or-that nature of the images. You can play hoops and you can walk in heels and that makes you multi-dimensional.

What's objectionable is feeling that you need to use beauty as an attribute to sell your team to new fans."

I certainly see how one could make the inference Ireland is making as an extension of what Smith writes. But that's clearly not Smith's argument, as written (if she has indicated elsewhere her thoughts about women's attire, I have not seen it).

Smith is clearly making an argument about how women are represented by their institution as *athletes*, not making a blanket statement about what constitutes appropriate attire generally. I would argue that institutional representation and self expression are two separate things.

I do agree with Ireland about the importance of acknowledging that female athletes do not have to forfeit their womanhood. But respond with this:

"No one suggested the "opposite"--that you couldn't play sports and wear dresses. People did however, note how sometimes athletes are compelled to do so to prove their femininity in order to be able to put on that other uniform."

The issue here with the FSU site is that it represents "womanhood" in a specific way that has historically been used to subordinate women as objects of male desires.

Yes, the notion of "womanhood" is contested and defined by the daily actions of women. But if we start to detach the meaning of womanhood and representations of womanhood from a broader historical context then we're not actually responding to the harmful effects of sexism...

Friday, December 11, 2009 at 12:41pm EST

robm says:

But it is not an extension of what she writes. Rather, it is a perceptive and accurate reading of it. Do you honestly think Smith would have complained if, say, there were only action shots and photos of the women clowning around? (Two sides of a coin, right?) Of course not. Obviously it is the dressing up that bugs her; that and only that.

Further, it isn't clear that institutional representation and self expression are two separate things, since the association is a deliberated, voluntary one from the beginning.

In truth, there are no dire "harmful effects of sexism" to be found here, and what Ireland is simply doing, in this instance at least, is returning feminism to a sensible, upright regard for the individual.

Friday, December 11, 2009 at 2:07pm EST

Q McCall says:

Given your final statement, I would argue that this is where the real disagreement lies: Smith is commenting on the cultural/historical significance of how students dress and are represented in the context of socialization in this society; Ireland is responding by saying individuals have the right to dress as the please.

We agree that the arguments are connected (though I would challenge how truly "voluntary" such a shoot it) -- representation and self-expression/individualism are intertwined, though obviously the agency involved in each clearly differs.

The only way Ireland's interpretation of Smith's article can be considered "perceptive and accurate" is to accept the way in which Ireland decontextualizes Smith's argument and shifts from a cultural argument to an individual argument and somewhere in between assumes that Smith therefore must not support wearing dresses.

The logic of Ireland's response does not hold up unless one dismisses the context of Smith's original argument. Regardless, even if we accept Ireland's response as valid, it presents a vision of feminism devoid of the structural critique that defines the best feminist activism, organizing, and scholarship. It is indicative of what feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins has described as "narcissistic political expression" - it not only values the individual interests over broader cultural/political factors, but also excludes the interests of less privileged women who are confined by those factors. It conflates feminism with U.S. hyper-individualism, which is neither necessary nor productive.

As such, it is neither a sensible response nor a sensible effort to help feminism.

Friday, December 11, 2009 at 4:08pm EST

robm says:

Q McCall: Feminism, properly understood, has always been linked with individualism. Respect for individual rights, abilities, preferences is the very heart of feminism; always has been.

Say not? Who, then, decides what is best for these individuals, these women? Michelle Smith? You? Or is it some other all-knowing soul whose mind is filled with structural critiques and vacuous jargon good only for cheap rhetorical effect ("U.S. hyper-individualism"). Here is where the rubber meets the road, and here is where Ireland has it right and you have it all wrong.

The collectivist claptrap you seem fond of is nothing other than hackneyed authoritarianism in new disguise: illiberal, not a little puritanical, and quite reactionary in its own way.

The logic of Ireland's argument holds up just fine; that is, once you remove the ideological blinders.

Friday, December 11, 2009 at 6:03pm EST

Q McCall says:

robm: First, I just want to make it clear that I enjoy the dialogue...regardless of whether either of us is completely "right", I think the issue warrants our reflection.

In that spirit, all words are vacuous and cheap without grounding in both So action and some sort of conceptual backing. So with individualism: every successful movement is ultimately concerned about the well-being of the individual -- feminist, racial equality, union, gay rights, etc. One of the fundamentals of organizing is "making personal problems public issues", right?

The distinction I would make between that and "hyper-individualism" is when an obsession with oneself comes at the expense of concern for broader issues (e.g. stating that whatever action a woman takes is "feminist", independent of how it affects other women simply because she's a woman). So, how are those broader issues determined and prioritized? Dialogue.

So I agree that no individual can decide what is best for people as a whole. But that does not mean we should throw up our arms and say that because one courageous leader shouldn't do it, we should just not bother trying. True dialogue -- sharing individual perspectives and finding commonalities rather than attacking differences --is essential to that process of engaging in structural critique that involves making the society a better place to live.

Historically, I think we can agree that from the Seneca Falls Convention to consciousness raising groups in the 60's to the Combahee River Collective to any number of feminist activists now (Rinku Sen immediately jumps to mind), dialogue and the formation of collective goals/visions have been at the heart of much feminist action.

You're right that "collective action" *can* be authoritarian...it can also result in significant advances for a society (I assume we can both identify our own favorite examples of that). Most movements that we identify as even marginally successful started with grassroots dialogue that led to the formation of some vision that informed a "best" course of action to reach realistic goals. When they become authoritarian and ceased to facilitate dialogue about evolving interests (and power struggles) as they made strides, they generally fizzled.

So I don't think the assertion that feminism is fundamentally about linking structural critique to individual experience is merely "ideological", in the sense that it seems you wish to dismiss it. I would argue instead that the feminist impulse of collaboration and dialogue in service of collective action is at the heart of almost any successful movement building project.

In this instance, I think it starts by questioning the impact sexualized media guides have on the socialization of young girls as Michelle Smith did with her daughter as an example. And certainly, Smith should be held up to scrutiny. But in order to do that, we have to at the very least honor the claims and context of Smith's argument rather than attacking her for things she is not saying.

Ireland's response fails to do that and it's why the logic ultimately falls apart.

Friday, December 11, 2009 at 8:20pm EST

robm says:

Q McCall: I, too, enjoy the dialog (though perhaps better without the epic length). It is wonderful to have a place like WTS where we can discuss openly and honestly these issues.

Voluntary cooperation for the betterment of all is indeed a noble and necessary thing. Beyond that, however, there is a danger, one not nearly as remote as you seem to think. When dogmatism takes hold, when fastidiousness becomes the rule, when the individual is demoted to little more than another cog in the collective's wheel, trouble, often grave, isn't far behind. The examples are many and varied, but thematically same. If you need some (astonishing that you would), open a history book--any 20th-century history should be particularly replete with them.

Michelle Smith feigns shock that FSU's female athletes aren't presented as "multi-dimensional," when in fact they are. Instead, what bothers Smith is one thing: the sexual aspect being at all present. This is why her piece is peppered with terms like "short skirt," "dresses cut up to mid-thigh," and of course the ubiquitous "sexualize." I don't know about "hyper-individualism" but old-fashioned puritanism is certainly alive and well in the US.

Ireland doesn't put words in Smith's mouth; she doesn't have to. If it is "okay" for a woman to wear a dress in public, that likewise holds true for a female athlete, and by extension a team of female athletes. Ireland thus reads Smith's overstatement of the "offense" and tags it accurately as "wholly counterproductive."

I combed Smith's blog yet couldn't find a comparable piece about Diana Taurasi's DUI. Perhaps she has written about it at length elsewhere, or this is just another example of my lackluster search abilities. But one thing I did find was this curious snippet, posted right after Taurasi won the MVP: "She was rewarded for her consistently outstanding, perpetually passionate game on the court in spite of a difficult few months following her arrest for drunk driving on July 2. But Taurasi, the four-time All-Star, has accepted public responsibility for her mistake, saying she was embarrassed and regretful. She addressed the subject again when asked at the awards presentation. Through the legal wrangling and her own emotional tumult over what happened, she put together the best season of her career."

One would think that, if Smith is indeed concerned about the "messages" her daughter is getting, lawless behavior, behavior that does endanger others in a very real way, would at the least rank equal to heels and short skirts.

It is closer to truth to describe Smith's criticism as prudery glossed. Ireland (and she isn't alone) holds sway on this one.

Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 8:36am EST

anngaff says:

Once I saw an interview with Beyonce where she said that she poses differently for a women's magazine than a men's magazine. Something about rolling her shoulders forward for the women's mag and throwing them back (and thus sticking out her chest) for the men's mag. Not arching her back for women, etc. The idea is to "connect" with the women, whereas in the men's magazine, it's about looking good for the men.

I thought of this interview when I saw the FSU website and the ensuing criticisms. My impressions of the website was that these women were taking pictures for themselves and other women (i.e. potential recruits)...confident expressions, relaxed poses, focus on the faces/laughter/team dynamic as opposed to focus on sexuality. I didn't see any arched backs or "coy" gazes. They were saying "this is how awesome it is to be on our team."

I also notice that not ALL of the women on the team were in the "dressed-up" photos. Maybe because they chose not to be? And were allowed to make that choice? I wish someone from FSU would tell us, but it certainly seems that this was not forced upon the athletes. No one had to remove their braids. Some women wore more makeup than others, implying a choice in that area as well.

When you are on a sports team, it is a sisterhood. The other women become your best friends. You might even *gasp* get dressed up and go out together sometimes. The impression I got (and trust me, I'm sensitive to sexual objectification) was that FSU was trying to show potential recruits how close the team was as a group AND give the impression that they get treated like rock stars by the school. Who wouldn't want that? And who sees that happen for a women's program?

I feel like FSU should be commended for giving the women's team so much attention and spotlight, which is rarely done in lieu of the men's, AND for doing it in such a classy manner.

Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 12:46pm EST

Q McCall says:

@AnnGaff: Thanks for that insight.

In a way, it sort of reminds me of something Lisa Leslie described in an interview once about how girls shouldn't lose their femininity in sports:

I think there's often a disconnect between intentions and perceptions which makes that a fine line to cross, but I see Beyonce's point...

@robm: Collectivism can be both good and bad...but is not inherently either, which means those of us concerned about moving things forward should accentuate the good while minimizing the bad. As I said, most great collective action falls apart when dialogue ends and turns into dogmatic sloganeering.

Tangentially, Smith is neither saying "dressing up" is inherently good or bad, but pointing out that in this situation, it was not the message she wanted her daughter to see. On the Women's Sports Roundtable yesterday they said it comes down to a matter of appropriateness in that situation.

To say one doesn't feel it's appropriate to market a sports team in that attire, is not to say that the clothing is inherently bad in any situation. Conflating the two is a a fallacy unless we know she thinks that way.

I would find it problematic for anyone to think in such rigid, absolutist terms regardless of someone's position on an issue. As a great Jedi master once said, "Only Siths think in black and white." ;)

Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 3:31pm EST

Q McCall says:

"I wish someone from FSU would tell us, but it certainly seems that this was not forced upon the athletes."

Ask, and you shall receive: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/sports/college/seminoles/os-fsu-website-controversy-1213-20091212,0,81352.story

Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 3:57pm EST

robm says:

AnnGaff: Spot on.

Q McCall: I didn't say that collectivism (collective action) is inherently bad. But I did point out that there are inherent dangers we must always be on guard against.

Smith's complaint is, at best, incoherent: There is nothing wrong with wearing dresses. An athletic team wearing dresses sends the wrong message.

Not just in either-or terms, either. Why an athletic team? Why not a group of business professionals, scientists, engineers, doctors? Why should a brilliant female scientist, for instance, wear a dress? Does she need a dress to be admired? One could just as easily say to her, "you deserve to be admired for your commitment and [brains] and tenacity, and not ogled as a means to get people to realize it."

Smith leaves all this wide-open for speculation. I'm all for nuance, but here it is difficult to give Smith benefit of the doubt. At the very minimum, she is largely responsible for any interpretations inconsistent with what she actually meant.

I'm thankful Patricia Ireland--a woman who knows more than a thing or two about fighting for rights--joined the fray. This team of female student-athletes needed her help. They have enough to deal with minus attacks for merely dressing up.

From Orlando Sentinel piece already linked: "It was kind of like prom dresses," 'she [Alexa Deluzio] said.' "It wasn't like anyone said no." ... "We were excited to dress up and look nice," she said. "It shows a different side of our personalities."

Monday, December 14, 2009 at 8:43am EST

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