Umbrellas, Boobs & Bad Ass Mohawks

Marjorie Murphy Campbell

The recent flurry of critical commentary provoked by the photo featured here set my New Feminist nerves on edge. What could possibly be wrong with a US Marine detailed to the White House holding an umbrella for the President of the United States?

The real story is not in the photo.  It’s in the Marine Corps regulations.  Umbrellas, it seems, are for females. Male marines are instructed,, “never to carry an umbrella from the earliest phases of training.” Female marines, however, are allowed limited use of regulation umbrellas “during inclement weather.” There is unquestionably a gender specific “double standard” in the US Marine Corps when it comes to umbrellas and, like any gender differentiation these days, we are not suppose to mention these differences in politically correct company. Blathering is often a telltale sign of an underlying gender issue. I’ll get back to this.

The photo itself seemed remarkable to me, not as a breach of military uniform policy, but for the utterly amazing umbrella-holding technique demonstrated by the buff US Marine, 25 year old Nathan Previti. This fellow has clearly practiced holding an umbrella so that he looks terrific in a photo of himself holding an umbrella, even though he is standing out in the rain and has his arm in exactly the same position bad boys in my 7th grade class had to balance a telephone book when Mr. Bailey got very pissed off at them.  I mean, could anyone possibly look more competent and in charge of an umbrella than Marine Previti?

Frankly, I would let this Marine hold my umbrella anytime.  Most men are pretty good at positioning the umbrella over their own heads, but negotiating where to put the umbrella to keep another person dry, is not normally in their umbrella skill set.  Most fellows end up badly miscalculating the direction of the wind and the rain and you end up getting drenched.  It’s better to have no umbrella holder than a poorly trained one like this useless fellow – which is to say that handling an umbrella for someone else is not all that easy.

But most of the social noise about President Obama and Marine Previti utterly ignored umbrella-holding technique and, instead, focused on Marine Corps Uniform Regulation 3035 which provides:

3035. UMBRELLAS (Female Marines). Female Marines may carry an all-black, plain standard or collapsible umbrella at their option during inclement weather with the service and dress uniforms. It will be carried in the left hand so that the hand salute can be properly rendered. Umbrellas may not be used/carried in formation nor will they be carried with the utility uniform.

From this provision – which “does not expressly [delineate]” umbrellas as authorized for men – one commentator spurred a charge that “The commander in chief of the American armed forces today forced a violation of Marine Corps regulations, so he wouldn’t get wet.”

Reactions (primarily from men) immediately grew emotional, leading Cynthia Enloe, a professor at Clark University, to note, “They seem to be very nervous what constitutes un-manly behavior.”  The fact that the Marine in question was detailed to the White House for service in ceremonial duties which, sometimes, means hoisting and holding steady an umbrella – and looking fabulous while doing so – were facts largely lost in the rising gender jitters.  One (male) writer went so far as to agree that the President had forced a Marine to violate the umbrella regulation but he insisted that the umbrella “rule is dumb,” an example of “macho B.S,” in other words, umbrellas are not just for girls!

Is the gender-specific umbrella double-standard in the US Marine Corps “BS”? Why do different protocols based upon gender make us so nervous we cannot even stay focused on the actual facts at hand? Umbrellas, actually, are only the tip of the Marine Corps iceberg of gender differentiation. A quick glance over the Table of Contents of Chapter 3 of the Marine Corps Uniform Regulations spots subtitles like “cuff link sets (men),” “earrings (women)” “handbag/purse (women)” and “suspenders (men)” in addition to the now well known, “umbrellas (women)”. In fact, from the hair on their heads to the tips of their toes, every US Marine is highly regulated in appearance and choice of attire and accessories and, more, those regulations vary significantly based upon the gender of the Marine.

But allowing variations in gender dress and appearance, is not, in my estimation, the sole reason these differentiations pervade the US Marine uniform regulations.  Rather, I suspect that the regulations actually operate to restrict and prevent much more overt expressions based upon gender which, left to their own choice, US Marines would pursue as readily as civilians.  Notably, rule after rule targeting certain gender specific issues restrict the choices Marines can make in selecting apparel and accessories.  There is no rule, for example, requiring women to wear earrings. But there is a 3 pronged regulation, with sub-parts, describing the size, shape, material and proper fit of permissible earrings if a woman decides to wear earrings.  The many, detailed restrictions on male and females expression of gender in their dress and personal appearance suggests that, even highly disciplined individuals like Marines, can drift toward expression of gender differences to the point of overshadowing the military identity a “uniform” is aimed to cohere.

Here are two examples.

Who can forget this May 2012 photo?

The photographer, Crystal Scott, who organized the photo shoot on the Fairchild Air Force Base and subsequently lost her civilian position on base, planned to feature in a show and posters her photographs of “a pair of Air National Guardsman breastfeeding their children in unbuttoned airman battlefield uniforms.” While the mothers apparently were not disciplined, there was widespread agreement that the photos misused the military uniform by creating an over-the-line, gender specific image in which the gender identity of the women out shadowed their identity as Guardsmen. How remarkably chipper and comfortable these nursing moms seem to be with their boobs on display, literally expressing the life-giving nurture women hold dear, while wearing combat fatigues!  This was an image of “women in uniform” that made even the most supportive “difference” feminists a bit uneasy.

Men just as naturally drift toward unambiguous expressions of their gender identity, given the option.  Consider the resources the US Marine Corps spends devising and educating members on appropriate hair styles.  Women are told cut it short or wear a bun.  Men’s style “short and tight” should be even easier to comply with, right? Apparently not. Bad ass mohawks, for example, are not permitted unless they measure out to the appropriate width of coverage.  Variations like a “horseshoe” or a “teardrop” have all been tried, only to be caught, captured and tossed out.

In case any ambiguity remains, there are detailed drawings of permitted styles available.

Differentiation in permitted hair styles was, incidentally, the first “right” to gender difference litigated after women successfully challenged the male only admissions policy at The Citadel. The “equality means sameness” litigant, Shannon Faulkner, who insisted that the male only admissions policy was discriminatory against women, nevertheless, refused to have her head shaved as required for all incoming cadets. The very same lawyers who had demanded “equality” in the admissions policy became, as New Feminist Elizabeth Fox-Genovese observed, “passionate” about “a woman’s right to have an attractive head of hair.” (Feminism Is Not The Story of My Life, p. 38).

All of which brings us back to umbrellas.

Whether an umbrella, any umbrella, is a unique expression of femininity within Marine culture, I am not sure. What I am certain of is that umbrellas can be, and often are, a fun statement of female sensibilities, both in the use of them to protect against rain and sun and, more, in coordinating them as part of a woman’s statement of feminine fashion.  If you leave it up to us, most women will make a gender statement of some sort with their umbrellas.

Like this:


Or like this:       

Or even like this:

And, well, if we can’t make that feminine statement with our umbrellas then, for most of us, the next best thing would be a well trained umbrella handler, like U.S. Marine Previti for example.  But that takes us to a different topic which I’ll save for another day.  

Whether Regulation 3035 makes sense or not, two things are clear.  Marine Previti did a darn good job with that umbrella when his President called upon him – and he broke no uniform regulation in the process. Second, the Presidential umbrella provoked gender anxiety and I think it is just fine to say so out loud. Some men, it seems, are trying to be heard, in a blathering kind of way, about what they would like to do with that accessory. Sometimes, pictures speak better than words.

An Open Letter RE: Louisiana SB 162

Jennifer Lahl

from Kathleen Sloan, NOW, and Jennifer Lahl, CBC

Members of the Louisiana House of Representatives:

We are writing to urge your rejection of SB 162, a bill that would allow commercial surrogacy or contract pregnancy in Louisiana. The inevitable consequence of this legislation is that it turns women into exploitable commodities through financial inducement that targets young healthy women. SB 162 would entice financially vulnerable women with “reasonable living expenses” in the range of $25-50,000 to undergo medical procedures that pose serious health risks. These procedures involve multiple daily injections of carcinogenic synthetic hormones in order to prepare her body for the transfer and acceptance of an embryo. As Senator Smith said in committee, it turns the woman into an “oven.”

As a national board member of NOW, Kathleen has worked for years against the sexual commodification of women and naturally segued into reproductive commodification. As a nurse, Jennifer is extremely knowledgeable about the medical issues, is the founder and president of a bioethics organization, and has made three documentary films on these subjects, including the award-winning Eggsploitation. We represent the spectrum of women all over this country, pro-choice and pro-life, secular and religious, all united against the exploitation of women as objects for sale.

Commercial surrogacy degrades pregnancy to a service and a baby to a product available to the wealthy. While this exploitive practice is illegal in many countries, in state after state, surrogacy brokers and lawyers who benefit financially from the commercialization of reproduction are behind these bills. Poor and low income women desperate for money are lured to sell their bodies to produce children for others. If passed, Louisiana will join a small group of states like California whose laws give rise to a new profit-driven multi-billion dollar unregulated industry that enriches baby brokers and lawyers at the expense of women.

Lured with the seemingly natural process of providing the “gift of life,” these young women are not aware of the dangers of undergoing multiple injections of synthetic hormones for embryonic implantation. These procedures can have devastating short and long term health consequences. Surrogates are pumped with drugs such as Lupron which is not FDA approved for fertility use; estrogen which is linked to breast and uterine cancers, heart attack, stroke and blood clots; progesterone; antibiotics; and steroids which are linked to high blood pressure, glaucoma, cataracts, peptic ulceration, and an impaired immune system.

Please do not gamble with the health and well-being of the most vulnerable women in your state. We respectfully urge you to defeat SB 162 by Senator Gary Smith.

Kathleen Sloan Jennifer Lahl
National Organization for Women (NOW) Center for Bioethics and Culture
Board of Directors President and Founder


Mother-in-Law Prenup?

Elizabeth Hanna Pham

I recently came across the mother-in-law prenup, in which a mother of a little boy jokingly  lists the things her future daughter in law must agree to in order to marry her son. The basic underlying premise of the post is as the writer puts it,

We have to take a stand against son stealing right now.

Of course, she’s half-kidding and the post is humorous—but the thing is, you know that the fact that she’s half-kidding means she’s also half-serious. And the fact that she’s half-serious is, quite frankly, pretty scary.

Especially if you’re a girl who plans to ever marry a boy.

But I’m already married and my mother in law and I get along great. So when I read the post, it didn’t scare me for my sake. It scared—no rather, alerted—me for the sake of my son. I had recently found out I was having a son when I read it and all I could think was:

Please God don’t let me be anything like this woman.

But the scary truth is that this woman’s feelings are natural. If you scroll down to the comments you may be surprised how many women agree with her and have genuine anger towards their daughter/future daughter-in-laws— sometimes because they have been genuinely mistreated, but often simply because a daughter-in-law guarantees that you’re no longer the number one woman in your son’s life. And that hurts. When you’re no longer the most beautiful woman in the world to your son, when you’re no longer his source of everything, it hurts. Because you’ve lost something that gave you meaning and value. And that loss is real. And as with any loss, in that moment, a mother is presented with an existential crisis:

What is my purpose?

Now the typical human response to this question, in any situation of loss or change, is to not really address it. We either live in denial and keep acting as if the relationship is as it once was, or we deflect our pain through anger at another person. Both of these reactions lead to unhealthy relationships between mother and son, mother and daughter-in-law, and in general, unrest within the family. Even in those circumstances where the feelings are completely hidden (or only revealed in jokes and/or side comments and gossip) they are still doing damage by not being dealt with and remedied. Any time we have hatred in our hearts we are doing damage because we aren’t open to love. So there is no question, that even if the feelings described in the blog post may be understandable, they must be stopped. The question is: how do we stop them? Well, I believe it starts with answering the existential question honestly. And most importantly, answering it long before circumstance shoves it in our face.

My experience as a mother is obviously incredibly small and I know I can’t begin to grasp all the feelings and pains and joys that come with motherhood. But I am a human being. And so therefore I do understand the feelings and pains and joys that come along with love. And that’s what motherhood is all about, really. Love. The problem is, human beings don’t always understand how best to love. We are overcome by the feelings of it all and in the process forget the point of it all. It is wonderful to be loved, but we twist our hearts into a mess the moment we value that feeling we get above the other person’s well-being. We set our psyches up for trauma the moment we allow that feeling we get to completely define us. Because the feeling is never guaranteed to stay. That little boy is going to grow up. One day, quite soon, he may ask me to marry him. And then twenty quite soon years later he may be asking another woman instead. That sweet and tender feeling that I will get from having this adorable little creature depend entirely on me will one day be somewhat taken from me. And that is a fact that absolutely must be dealt with. I must ask myself, now, how I will deal with it then. I must decide that something else is more important than those tender feelings. For tender feelings are not the substance of love.

Tender feelings are beautiful. But they are only the product of love. Love has to be bigger than that. Love has to say I’m going to love you even when you do not give me tender feelings—or, in this case, when you give your tender feelings to someone else. If anyone says this, it is usually mothers and fathers. They get this better than any of us do. Partially because their natural instinct is a little more selfless. But it is not enough to go off of instinct because instinct only takes love so far. If we want to learn to love, we have to consciously decide to do so. Even when it hurts us. Even when we feel rejected. Even when that rejection comes from the human being who we have literally given everything to.

And if we learn to love like this, if we learn to love above and beyond the tender feelings, we will receive an even greater peace and joy, because we are living as we should. We are living the way a human being was meant to live.

And what’s cool about it is that oftentimes when we do learn to love like this we end up finding even more tenderness. We may deepen and enrich our existing relationships or even discover new ones (like a relationship with an in-law.) I hope that one day my son grows up and finds a wonderful woman to spend his life with. Because his happiness, not primarily the tender feelings we share, but his happiness beyond me, is my purpose in his life. If I don’t live up to that purpose, neither of us will ever know our own true potential or the potential of our relationship. He may be a mere three or so pounds right now, and he may have never known anything outside of the little crib he nestles in inside of me—but true love has to start now. Or before I know it, as all experienced parents warn, I’ll be watching him walk down the aisle. And I want to be, as my parents and in-laws were for me, brimming with happiness. I want to be able to watch him give himself to her and think this was the point of it all. This was why he asked me to marry him. So he could learn how to marry her.