I summer of 2015. It was during that

I was working full time at
the University of North Texas as an administrative specialist for the Toulouse
Graduate School in the summer of 2015. It was during that summer that I heard
about the Women’s & Gender Studies Master’s degree. The program piqued my
interest but the idea of being accepted into graduate school was laughable to
me. I had been out of school for four years and what’s more, I was something of
an apathetic undergraduate student; I was not in any way graduate school
material. But I’d long been an ardent feminist and with the university’s
generous tuition waiver it seemed illogical not to try to be accepted into a
program.

I applied the Women’s &
Gender Studies program fresh off a stint of activism following the 2013 passage
of Texas House Bill 2 into law. HB2 was a law passed by the Texas Legislature
that, despite vehement protests from almost every medical association of
record, required all facilities providing abortions to meet near hospital-like
regulations in order to continue practicing (HB 2). It effectively dismantled
women’s reproductive rights in the state of Texas by closing all but four of
the abortion clinics available throughout the state. The law was later
overturned in 2016.  At the time my particular brand of feminism was
centered almost solely around women’s body autonomy and reproductive rights. I watched
every minute of Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster, I actively protested, contacted
my representatives via mail, email and phone, and shouted down any relation and
friend foolhardy enough to debate the issue with me.

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All that to say, my plan was
to enter the program in order to learn more about the cause to which I was so
devoted. I wanted to learn the history of the movement that I was a part of. In
short, I wanted the reading list to backup my debates.  I type this with a fair bit of mirth now;
there was so much I did not know in 2015, just as there is still so much I
still do not know today. As I’m writing this comprehensive exam I feel as
though I know everything and nothing. So, insecurities and inefficiencies in
tow, I crafted the most impassioned letter of intent I have ever written, and
by the grace of Dr. Sandra Spencer, I was admitted into the program. With my
purple ‘Texas Feminist’ button in hand, a gift to all new students, I set out
with the goal to learning everything I could about Women’s & Gender Studies
at the University of North Texas. I share that personal anecdote regarding my
humble beginnings in my introduction to this response only to provide context
as to how far I feel I have come with regard to the purpose of my graduate
studies. I know now that when I started this program my feminism was shallow,
ill-researched, and very white; in short, one Gloria Steinem poster does
not a true feminist make.

Throughout this program, I
have been most influenced by how very systemic gender-based inequality is. I
have learned that some of that inequality is intentional and encouraged and
that international policies of globalization and development are giant
institutions that were created with little consideration for marginalized. And
although grassroots activism is an important piece of a multifaceted solution,
the real power is in the policy and in making vulnerable populations visible.

This program has instilled within me a desire to take what I have learned and
use it toward improving the lives of the lives of vulnerable people, especially
women, by working to change the structure of our institutions.  As I end this program I am seeking advocacy,
planning, and charitable donations positions within nonprofit organizations
including Children’s Defense Fund, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, UNICEF, She
Should Run, and many more. I am also interested in positions within a city’s
public administration, specifically in areas related to homelessness and social
programming. At my core, I am a helper and this program has given me a unique
set of tools that will enable my desire to help in a truly impactful way. 

Throughout the rest of this
response, I will detail the coursework and concepts that have most shaped my
professional goals. I will reference readings, assignments, and lectures that I
have found particularly impactful alongside personal insights from my
experiences in the program in order to illuminate the common thread that has
influenced me most: the institutionalized, systemic nature of gender-based inequality.

 

Domestic Human Trafficking
and the Fresh Start Program

 The first influential
lesson I learned in the Women’s & Gender Studies program came in the form
of Gender and Human Trafficking, taught by Dr. Sandra Spencer in the fall of
2015.  In class, we watched and discuss a
documentary called Tricked, which examined the exploitative nature of
street sex trafficking in Michigan. This documentary and discussion influenced
my professional aspirations because it was a lesson in human trafficking in the
United States, and the failure of the justice system to protect trafficking
victims from their pimps and traffickers, treating them instead as criminals
who share an equal amount of guilt. It was my first time to learn about how
institutionalized policy negatively affected women and provided a much-needed
depth to my understanding of the complicated nature domestic human trafficking
and the criminal justice system.  As an
example of that complicated nature, below is an excerpt from the  2017
Trafficking in Persons or TIPS report. In it, the State Department details what
it believes to be the populations most vulnerable to human trafficking in the
United States.

Particularly vulnerable
populations in the United States include: children in the child welfare and
juvenile justice systems; runaway and homeless youth; unaccompanied children;
American Indians and Alaska Natives; migrant laborers, including undocumented
workers and participants in visa programs for temporary workers; foreign
national domestic workers in diplomatic households; persons with limited
English proficiency; persons with low literacy; persons with disabilities; and
LGBTI individuals. NGOs noted an increase in cases of street gangs engaging in
human trafficking. Some U.S. citizens engage in child sex tourism in foreign
countries. (2017 TIPS)

I find the careful wording of that summary to be very interesting.

Almost all of the categories listed above carry with them an implication of
innocence and a lack of agency. The sentence of particular importance
references human trafficking within street gangs including the forced sex work
of American citizens.

 In Tricked, these women, a large number
of whom are non-white and of lower income fit the profile of trafficked persons
are instead defined as prostitutes and are not officially acknowledged as
victims by the American justice system. They are often forced, through the
threat of physical violence or emotional/mental manipulation into sex
trafficking by their pimps with little to no recourse to change their current
situation. Yet there is no mention in the above excerpt of these women being
classified as a population vulnerable to trafficking by the state department.

Instead, the increase in trafficking by street gangs has been noted by
non-governmental associations. This important distinction shows a lack of
nuance in the American justice system with regard to domestic victims of human
sex trafficking. Often, if a woman does not act like the correct definition of
a trafficking victim, if she instead displays any sort of agency or refuses to
cooperate with investigators because of abuses she may have suffered she is
arrested, charged, and jailed rather than offered the myriad of social services
offered to those who fit the justice system’s picture of a trafficking victim.

            As a counterpoint to the maddening statistics related to
sex trafficking that I learned about in Tricked, the silver lining of
the Detroit Fresh Start Program also shown in the documentary gave me a real
sense of purpose with regard to my professional goals. Fresh
Start is a program for drug-addicted sex workers; it provides social services
and rehabilitation to women in jail on prostitution charges.  Run by Judge
Leonia Lloyd of the 36th District Court, along with the Wayne County Sheriff’s
department and various drug treatment and recovery programs, the purpose of
Fresh Start is to help who have been arrested for prostitution get clean, find
affordable housing, and secure jobs. The Fresh Start program also offers
counseling, education and job training for program members, and for women who
complete the program all misdemeanor charges incurred are dropped, giving them
a clean slate and a real chance at a future. (Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries
2018)

 Though
the American justice system at large is designed to work against these women,
it is heartening to see people in positions of power working within that system
to change it. Rather than continuing to treat these women as criminals and
racking up their jail charges, the Fresh Start Program offers an
institutionalized means of rehabilitation by offering them the social services
they would be afforded by the United States government were they considered
victims of sex trafficking. Learning about the Fresh Start Program taught me
that there are ways of working with institutions that can change them from the
inside out. While a complete tearing asunder of the established United States
justice system vis a vis sex workers is not possible one fell swoop, and while
the success of these programs is contingent upon their continued funding, it is
programs like Fresh Start that have the power to affect policy change in a way
that feels impactful on an institutional level. That systemic change from
within institutions is what I strive for in my professional life. I may not be
able to restructure international development or globalization into systems
that consider the lives of marginalized populations, but I can work within
their lines to improve the lives of women and the hope of that realization was
incredibly influential throughout this program.

Feminist/Womanist
Theory: Visible Identities

            To fulfill
my theory requirement, I took a course through the UNT/TWU affiliate program
called Feminist/Womanist theory with Dr. Phillips-Collins. The TWU Women’s
Studies program focuses on multiculturalism while UNT’s Women’s & Gender
Studies program focuses more on global issues. It turns out that the
Feminist/Womanist theory course dovetailed perfectly with my studies here at
UNT. The course readings included works by Kimberle Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, bell
hooks, and Linda Martin Alcoff. This was my first foray into multicultural
feminist theory as well as studying intersectionality and its relatively recent
inclusion within the overall feminist canon.

 One
concept, in particular, that has influenced my professional goals is the theory
Linda Martin Alcoff’s theory of ‘visible identities. In her book Visible
Identities, Alcoff (2006) “explores race and gender as visible identities
and seeks to uncover some of the mechanisms by which they are identified…as
well as the implications of a fuller understanding of these identities on
political practice” (p. 8) Alcoff’s theorizes that these visible markers should
not be a means of boxing people categories. She questions the need for history
and social structure to be tied to race or gender and examines the ways in
which this process can lead to oppression. Alcoff explores the visible markers
of identity through race and gender and how they influence everything from
personal histories to how we are viewed by the outside world. Race and gender,
after all, do not occur in a vacuum. They are highly political in nature and
when coupled with policy-making power, the institutionalized definitions of
visible identities becomes a powerful tool in the hands of those who, directly
or indirectly, oppress the marginalized for capital gain. That being said,
understanding the impact of visible identities have also become powerful tools
in my hands and in the hands of all women who learn about them and act on that
understanding. 

To provide
context to theory, I would like to reference another response in which I
detailed the importance of the intersectional nature of the #MeToo movement.

#MeToo has been so incredibly effective because, for the first time it seems, a
light is being shone on the harsh reality that gender-based inequality
disproportionately affects women of color, women of lower socioeconomic status,
and undocumented women, often because of the institutional definitions of their
visible identities. Within this movement, women have been able to come forward
and put into context how their visible identities have affected their
experiences. The national conversation surrounding this context has led to a
greater understanding of just how pervasive and normalized gender-based
violence has become and for the first time, the most marginalized of victims
whose stories so often go unheard or brushed aside are able to describe their
unique position in the world with relation to their identity. 

Linda
Martin Alcoff’s theory of visible identities has profoundly influenced my
professional goals and my personal feminism. I have learned the importance of
taking the time to understand the complex relationship that women have with
their visible identities, and that these identities affect everything from
their outlook on life, to the way they interact within institutions, to the way
they vote, work, etc. With my planned work for nonprofit organizations or in
public administration, I want to use this knowledge of visible identities in
all aspects of any advocacy or policymaking that I am fortunate enough to do. I
want to make sure that the programs I create have a positive impact on as many
women from as many walks of life as possible. Thanks to this course have a
greater sense context when understanding the relationship between identity and
personal experience. This context has made me better prepared to be a helper to
many more types of people simply by understanding that they move through life
and experience systems and structures in a completely different way than I do.

And knowing that is a vital foundation in changing systems from within and
recognizing how to help those who have been marginalized by them.  

Globalization
and Gross Domestic Product

 So far
in this response, I have talked a lot about working from within or alongside
institutions and systems to try and change them for the benefit of women. The
driving force behind this professional aim came from Dr. Ozlem Altiok’s Gender
and Development and Gender and Globalization courses. To say that these courses
were eye-opening on a global scale for me would be an understatement. I now
view capitalism as a politicized global system that has been manipulated in
order to keep power in the hands of the powerful and the question of  ‘who benefits?’ has become a common response
to every development project I hear about.  And while it would be
impossible to detail all the ways in which learning about development and
globalization influenced me in such a limited space, I would like to zoom in on
an interlocking set of issues discussed in both courses: Globalization and GDP.

In particular the use of GDP as a marker for a country’s well being, the way in
which that process is gendered, and my complicity in the oppression of those
marginalized by the mechanisms of globalization.  

            In
Gender, Development, and Globalization 2nd Edition (2016) Lourdes
Beneria, Gunseli Berik, and Maria S. Floro detail the relation between GDP and
economic well-being. As a hallmark of international development GDP as a marker
of prosperity became a major influence in the designation of countries with a
low GDP as ‘third world’ countries, as they were known at the time. Though
cautioned against this practice by its creator, GDP as a marker of a country’s
success has become common rhetoric throughout politics, economics, and the
media (p.181) This is important because, in a system of measuring a country’s
health based upon its economic activity, only those whose work is counted
contributes to policymaking. The implications of this practice are especially
impactful in the global south where many women’s subsistence agricultural or
economic labor is not counted because it is wrapped into their day to day lives
instead of being considered as a job worthy of economic recognition. In the
global North, the unpaid care work women do has become known as ‘the second
shift’ among working women; it includes housework and the physical and
emotional labor of caring for children, parent, and spouses in addition to
their paid work (Beneria et al 2016).  

 This
lesson, as well as many of the other concepts I have learned in Gender and
Globalization and Gender and Development, have changed my understanding of the
economic world order. I am by no means an economist but I have a greater
awareness now of how globalization and development negatively affect women both
in the global North and South. Economics is political and basing the health of
regions on their GDP is not only an impractical method that fails to account
for much of the work being done by women, it is being used as a means for the
economically powerful to stay powerful. What’s more, with the complete
globalization and decentralization of industry, much of the work being done in
one country may, in fact, be contributing to the Gross National Product of
another, more powerful one.

            The
hardest lesson that these concepts have taught me is that I am complicit in the
marginalization and oppression of people in the global south. I have purchased
rugs without a Goodweave tag, which means that I have contributed to the forced
labor of children rug makers in India. I have purchased inexpensive clothing
from chain discount stores, meaning that I have contributed to sweatshop labor
in Cambodia, a hallmark in globalization’s negative effects on women, who
provide a disproportionate percentage of labor in the garment industry. I have
eaten more chocolate chip cookies than I care to admit here, meaning that I
have contributed to human trafficking and forced child labor taking place in
cacao farms in on the Ivory Coast. And I have done all in the name of
convenience and saving money. The global focus of UNT’s Women’s & Gender
Studies program has taught me the global, institutional nature of poverty. It
is that knowledge that I intend to carry with me so that it can influence the
work that I do in the professional sector, as well as influence my decisions on
a personal level.

Conclusion

 To conclude,
I came into the Women’s & Gender Studies program with a vague notion of
social justice as my driving force. I undertook this program for my own
personal fulfillment, not knowing that it would fundamentally change who I am
as a person. As I near the end of this program I have set my professional
sights on advocacy work for women and children within non-governmental
organizations. I am also interested in working within city administration to
create programming related to alleviating homelessness and creating
outreach-based programs for those engaged in sex work, forced or otherwise.

While there are countless other lessons that have influenced me professionally,
the lessons on human trafficking and its many forms domestic and abroad have
informed my understanding of how politics and antiquated institutional
practices within the criminal justice system overlook many victims who do not
fit the standardized ‘victim’ profile. Gender theory with a multicultural focus
has lent me a greater capacity for empathy when working with diverse groups of
people, reminding me that for every visible marker of identity, there are
entire histories and personal experiences influencing actions and behaviors.

And finally, understanding the intensely complex political nature of
international development and globalization has made me a wiser citizen. I am
now able to understand the ‘why’ behind so many of the injustices I see in the
world around me and what’s more, I feel like that understanding has enabled me
to start doing something about them. I’m going to take all of the lessons I
have learned over the past three years and set about improving the lives of
women by trying to rewrite the structures that are set against them. Whether
through advocacy or public administration I feel confident that with the
abilities this program has given me I’ll be able to somehow make a legitimate
difference for women.