Tag Archives: feminism

On Women’s Equality Day, Which Women Do We Mean?

Today is Women’s Equality Day in the United States, celebrated yearly since 1971 on August 26th to mark the certification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that extended the right to vote to women.

While this is an occasion to celebrate, there are a few myths, lies, and blatant rewrites of history that pop up every year that should be addressed. This is by no means an exhaustive list or a full, intersectional history of the battle for suffrage, but rather an attempt to muddy the conversation about which women we’re really talking about when we speak of “women’s equality.”

Myth: The 19th Amendment “gave” women the right to vote.

Fact: No one “gave” or “granted” women anything. Suffrage is a right one is born with in a free democracy, a right that was denied to women by the founders of our nation who did not see white women and all folks of color as human enough to deserve it. Organizers endured heckling, ostracization, beatings, force feedings and, in some cases, even death to get the 19th amendment passed — it was a fight for justice too long denied, not a polite request finally granted.

Lie: The 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to women.

Truth: This is only true if your definition of “women” is “white, cisgender, documented women.” Women and men of color, especially in the South, continued to face barriers to voting in the form of literacy tests, “grandfather” clauses, and Jim Crow laws until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. The Voting Rights Act was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, which means that many folks of color will again be disenfranchised under the same ideology that assumes elected white people get to decide who “deserves” the right of suffrage. (See: North Carolina and Texas.) Additionally, undocumented women and men, who contribute to the nation as a whole and their communities specifically, are still denied the right to vote on the policies that impact their lives and those of their families. Women who have been convicted of felonies are also barred from voting. Voter ID laws, which require the gender one was assigned at birth to match the gender one actually is, prohibit many trans* folks from accessing the polls as well.

Historical Rewrite: White women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul thought up, led, and won the battle for suffrage.

Historical Truth: While those names are the ones most often mentioned in history books, those same texts both fail to recognize the women and men of color who fought for suffrage and cover up the fact that many of the white women leaders of the suffrage movement were pretty damn racist. They also fail to mention that early white suffragists like Stanton and Anthony were radicalized by interacting with Iroquois women, who were voting members on tribal councils and had the final say on the appointment of village chiefs. The suffragists who actually credited Native women’s influence on their organizing did so only to position indigenous cultures as “savage” in order shame white men into being more “enlightened” than Native peoples. The same white women who were spurred to action by Native women’s roles later aligned themselves with organizations that fought for the disenfranchisement of “blanketed Indians.”

Many of the staunchest advocates for universal suffrage were abolitionists. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, all Black women, were leaders in the suffrage movement who faced discrimination from their white “sisters” in the fight. The National Women’s Suffrage Association’s official position was that suffrage for white women should come first, at the expense of voting rights for women and men of color. During the famed 1913 march, Alice Paul ordered Black women to march at the back in order to avoid offending racist white Southern women — Ida B. Wells refused and slipped out of the line to take her rightful place in the Illinois delegation at the front of the parade. Susan B. Anthony, in just one of her many racist oppressions, was instrumental in the exclusion of ardent women’s rights supporter Frederick Douglass from a suffrage conference in Atlanta.

Myth, Lie, and Historical Rewrite: “Women’s Equality” and the continued fight for women’s rights in 2013 is inclusive of all women.

Sad but important truth: It’s not.

The “mainstream” feminist movement of today — meaning the writing, organizing, and other work that gets the most attention, resources, and privilege — remains centered on the rights, lives, and experiences of white, non-Native, cisgender, documented, straight, able-bodied women. Women whose identities match these privilege sets, women like me, actively appropriate the work of women whose do not, erase their histories, assail their identities and set up fiscal, political, social, and cultural barriers in order to interrupt and negate the organizing of women of color, trans* folks, disabled people, undocumented people, and those who live their lives at the intersections of those identities. Just check out #solidarityisforwhitewomen, started by Mikki Kendall and explained here, and #dearcispeople. Google Cece McDonald and #girlslikeus. See women’s groups that claim to be fighting for all women who endorse candidates who voted for Stop and Frisk and refuse to support comprehensive immigration reform or go to the mat for Native women’s inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act. The list goes on and on.

Women’s Equality Day has a noble goal: uplift the history of the struggle for women’s rights and highlight the continued work toward gender justice. But if we aren’t committed to problematizing the history we’ve been taught, to centering the work of marginalized folks and learning the histories that have been erased from textbooks, and to coming to terms with the fact that when many feminists say they work for women’s equality but really just mean some women, then we’re just celebrating and continuing oppression.

I don’t have the answer to ending that continued oppression but I do know that it’s not the feminist movement that I want or that anyone needs. As a counterpoint to the unexamined celebratory links going around today, I’ve begun to compile a list of resources that celebrate the heroines who’ve been erased from history and examine the history of oppression within the suffrage movement that continues today. If you have other links, please put them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

Woman Suffrage at the Turn of the Century: The Rising Influence of Racism — Angela Davis

How Racism Tainted Women’s Fight to Vote — Monée Fields-White

How Native Americans Influenced the Women’s Suffrage Movement — Jessica Diemer-Eaton

Not All Women Won the Right to Vote Today — Renee Martin

Homespun Heroines And Other Women of Distinction — compiled and edited by Hallie Quinn

African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965 — (book) Cynthia Neverdon-Morton (Author), Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Author), Martha Prescod Norman (Author), Bettina Aptheker (Author), Ann D. Gordon (Editor), Bettye Collier-Thomas (Editor)

African American Women In The Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 — (book) Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

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Successful Women Are Scary, Single: Part 7599

The International Herald Tribune and the New York Times are concerned. Concerned about women. Specifically, concerned women who are successful will fail to fulfill their ultimate goal and purpose in life, which is obviously to attach herself to a man so that he can fulfill his ultimate goal and purpose in life of taking care of her. This is how the world is supposed to work and now that feminism has messed everything up, women are paying the price of being SINGLE FOR GOD SAKES and men’s EGOS ARE BEING CRUSHED and we should all take a moment to bemoan this new modern reality because, really, the world just might end.

Or, at least that’s what I took from Katrin Bennhold’s ridiculous contribution to the International Herald Tribune’s ‘The Female Factor,’ which endeavors to explore where women stand in the early 21st century. In pursuit of this goal, all Bennhold could manage to ask was, “Is female empowerment killing romance?” Of course, the backlash to feminism isn’t new and if we looked hard enough and had a strong stomach, we could find the exact same question asked by some concern troll columnist every decade since women got the vote. (I’d rather keep my lunch down – if you do the research, goddess bless you and send me a link!)

In this 2010 incarnation, Bennhold takes us through horror stories of the various ways that successful women scare away men and introduces us to a few men, kind souls, who are willing to make the sacrifice to date successful women as long as they get to drive. But, THANKFULLY, Bennhold also lists three things women MUST DO order to mitigate the impact of their bank balance on their love life:

Leave the snazzy company car at home on the first date; find your life partner in your 20s, rather than your 30s, before you’ve become too successful. And go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.

Ok, ew. I’ll drop the sarcasm for a minute to say that, yes, there certainly are men who shrink at the thought of dating a woman who makes more than him. While it might be easy to write these guys off as unenlightened douches, this inferiority complex is a good example of one of the many ways that sexism and gender roles hurt men too. In this case, men are told their worth is based on their ability to financially support a woman rather than on being emotionally supportive and an egalitarian partner or an equal parent, if one choose the have children. In reality, these experiences should be open to and encouraged in all humans of both genders and the fact that some men miss out on them is yet another reason men should be clamoring to sign up for the feminist revolution.

If the question must be asked how the fact that some women – usually white and straight and a far smaller percentage than authors of these articles are ever willing to mention – are now making more than men impacts on heterosexual courtship, the focus should be on why we hold so tight to the gender roles that might make the question relevant in the first place. Why are men still made to feel they have to be the breadwinner and women feel they have to downplay their success? How can we change these patterns at a personal, political and social level? Are the women who are making more than their male partners still working the double shift (in many cases, yes) and are men becoming more equal inside the home as women become more equal outside of it (in many cases, no)?

I also can’t help but note that while Bennhold’s piece is centered around European experiences, the New York Times gave it credence less than two weeks after the US Senate refused to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and rectify the fact that white women make 77 cents, Black women make 61 cents, and Latina women make 52 cents to the white male dollar. And while Bennhold and many others tout the fact that women have overtaken men in college enrollment, few ever note that this in large part due to the fact that women are more likely to go back to college because they’ve found that they need it to support their families, because it’s still harder for women than most men to find higher paying employment without a college degree. So, along with being pointless, condescending, and based on the assumption all women want to find a man, it’s yet more column inches devoted to a few straight, (mostly) white women and their romantic problems rather than the far more pressing problems stemming from inequality faced by the majority of women.

Sigh. In answer to the question as to the state of women in the early 21st century: both women AND men still have a long, long way to go.

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Feminism’s New Young Leaders at 92Y Tribeca!

As I sat in the audience at the 92Y and listened to feminist leaders Gloria Steinem and Marie Wilson talk about the election in September of 2008, I wondered if, by the time I was 74, I would get the opportunity to opine about my favorite topic at that iconic venue. Turns out I don’t have to wait 50 years – and for that I’m incredibly honored, humbled, and slightly intimidated!

On November 10th, 92Y Tribeca will host ‘Naomi Wolf Talks with Feminism’s New Young Leaders,’ a conversation featuring myself, Feministing founder Jessica Valenti, Ivy League sex blogger and organizer extraordinaire Lena Chen, and Allison Kasic, who works at the Independent Women’s Forum and, I assume from the event modifier “voices from the left and right,” will be representing the Sarah Palin version of feminism. The panel was put together by More Magazine, which is featuring all the panelists and a host of other great new faces of feminism in their Novemeber issue, which will be on newsstands October 26th.

If you’re in NYC, stop by and say hello and submit your questions about the now and future of the movement. If you’re not in NYC, no worries! I’ll be posting a detailed recap, as I’m sure will the other bloggers on the panel. Event information is below – hope to see you there!

Voices from the left and right: Lena Chen, Allison Kasic, Shelby Knox and Jessica Valenti. Moderated by Naomi Wolf and More editor-in-chief Lesley Jane Seymour

Where are all the young feminists? That’s the frequently asked—and loaded—question that inspired More editor-in-chief Lesley Jane Seymour to feature 14 young feminists in her November issue (on news-stands Oct 26). Bestselling author Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) joins Seymour and panelists Lena Chen, Allison Kasic, Shelby Knox and Jessica Valenti for a provocative discussion: How do the young leaders define feminism? Is blogging the new march on Washington? What do the conservative feminists believe? And will the intergenerational clash ever end?

Date & Time: Wed, Nov 10, 2010, 7:00pm

Location: 92YTribeca, 200 Hudson Street Venue: 92YTribeca Mainstage

Tickets ($12) available online at the 92Y event page.

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On the Ground: Getting to Know CO

Greetings from Denver – I’ve finally arrived!

Not without incident, of course. I wish sometimes I had counted how many hours over the past five years I’ve spent stranded in airports, wrangling with airlines, and cursing the lack of electrical outlets in terminals. I won’t bore you with the details but to say that Delta managed to make me miss my first flight, which put me next to a drooling hunter on the second flight…but it was all well worth it!

The fabulous Beth K. of NARAL Colorado picked me up from the airport and took me and my absurd amount of luggage back to the NARAL headquarters. It’s truly a campaign office, with ‘No on 62’ yard signs, buttons, stickers, and the like all over the place. Oooh, and zucchini cupcakes. And, of course, a crew of fabulous hardworking young feminists – I arrived as several were coming back from canvassing for votes, two were making volunteer recruiting calls for the next canvas (which is, no joke, on a party bus!), and one was cutting out small invites for the members-only champagne reception on September 30th.

I sat down with Beth to go over the schedule for the next two weeks – I won’t recount it here because it’s long but mostly because it’s overwhelming. There are rallies on campuses, rallies in parks, a potluck, meetings with students, a screening of my film, phone banks, canvassing, and media interviews. I’m also taking charge of NARAL Colorado’s Twitter and Facebook streams so, go follow!

The picture above is of Beth serving as a human teleprompter for me as I film a video promoting the NARAL Colorado Voting Guide. See, no one told me when I became a feminist organizer that I would be asked (with increasing frequency, for some reason!) to be in videos, on the spot, with no prep time. I’ll post it in a few days if it’s usable!

After that, dinner and dessert with the amazing staff, who I will introduce you to in the next couple of days. Tomorrow, look for video, more photos, and the start of a series of stories from the women working on the campaign and those who will be affected most if the “personhood” amendment is passed.

Finally, a note on the title of this series, ‘On the Ground.’ As you probably know, nothing makes me angrier than the myth that young women aren’t feminists. But a close second and third are the myths that the young feminists of my generation who do exist don’t care about reproductive rights and we don’t do any offline activism to complement our blogging. Both are untrue and both stem from a misunderstanding of what I see as evolving Forth Wave feminist ideology. We care very much about reproductive issues, so much so that we’ve expanded the framework from advocating for political ‘reproductive rights’ to advocating for and making ‘reproductive justice’ for all women and men. And, yes, we do a lot of that activism online, writing to raise consciousness, making out own counter-media, and connecting our networks to amplify previously silenced voices. Often, as I hope to do with this series, we do all of these things in conjunction with on the ground organizing, whether it be making calls, canvassing, organizing rallies schools or community centers, lobbying representatives…the list is endless.

As I said in a (very tired) toast last night: here’s to young feminists, not cogs in a wheel but the brains behind the operation, not the future of the movement but the now, on the front lines, changing the world, saving lives, on the ground.

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Unicorns and Young Feminism

This post is one of 37 submissions in the ‘This is What a Young Feminist Looks Like’ blog carnival. Head over to our host, Fair and Feminist, for a list of participating blogs.

Today, I’m declaring my solidarity with the unicorns. After all, I’m also part of a marginalized group that many insist doesn’t exist and upon which many more impose their hopes, dreams and fears. We don’t have horns but, at least in my personal opinion, we have magical powers that can and will change the world in ways no one can yet imagine.

I am a young feminist. Once and for all, I am a very, very real. And I am far from the only member of my pack.

Every couple of weeks another well-known older woman publicly bemoans the extinction of feminism in my generation.  And unfailingly, after each speech I give about my nine years in the feminist movement, someone stands up to ask why young women are unwilling to take up the banner for equality. Each time, it feels like a personal jab. I know or have met many of the older leaders who propagate this myth and I wonder, “Did you forget the conversations we’ve had about organizing in high schools and on college campuses? Are the young women who run your websites and table at your events and stuff packets for your conferences really invisible or do they just mean that little to you?” To those at my speeches I want to scream, “Did you tune out the last thirty minutes of me talking about college feminists in Colorado getting their peers to vote against anti-choice ballot initiatives and immigrant young women in California helping nail salon workers form unions and brave young women teaching comprehensive sex education in the South?”

But, I don’t say any of those things. I go back to my herstory and try to remind these older women, often veterans of the Second Wave battles, that one of the reasons some young women fail to see gender equality as a main issue in their life is because their work eradicated many of the overt oppressions against women that, before, were simply known as “life.” My generation has never experienced segregated employment ads or “men only” signs or been unable to get credit without a male co-signer. The feminists of the 1970’s dreamed and labored into a reality a country in which little girls are told they can be anything they want to be and have far more role models to prove it. If we seem ungrateful, it’s because we can never truly know how bad it was and, I believe, most of the women’s liberationists wanted it that way.

I also find myself trying to explain why, for very valid political reasons, some young women don’t identify as feminist. I feel my older colleagues pain on this one – I, too, feel my life was saved and radically transformed by this thing called feminism and I can’t think of a better way to describe my work and worldview than the f-word. Yet, my ability to love and use this word is strongly tied to my privilege as a white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, cisgender woman. People who share these privileges have historically and continue to control the mainstream women’s movement and that movement has a history and often a present of silencing, shaming, and/or marginalizing women who don’t fit into that privilege set. For these reasons, many young women of color, queer women, disabled women, and trans women don’t consider “feminist” a safe or useful term.

That doesn’t, however, mean that these women are not working for gender equality and working in ways that extend the scope and impact of social justice organizing like we’ve never seen before. For example, young women doing their activism under the umbrella of the woman of color led reproductive justice movement are expanding the fight for reproductive rights from a legal and political struggle to a community conversation about economic access to services, the rights of incarcerated mothers, and the impacts of often intersecting identity-based oppressions that influence individual ability to parent, get health care, and use those hard won legal rights. To discount these young activists as apathetic or uninformed because they use a different label or refuse a label at all is to replicate the silencing that drove many away in the first place and that has splintered social justice efforts for centuries.

Of course, there are some young women who don’t identify as feminist because they don’t like the connotations of the word or they think, falsely, that women have achieved full equality. This is the “I’m not a feminist but” crowd and, yup, that’s a frustrating implication of the backlash against feminism that we’ve been talking about since Susan Faludi named it in 1991. Instead of dwelling on it, I choose to look on the bright side. When 18-25 year old women were asked in a 2007 Harris poll if they believed in the goals of the women’s liberation movement, 90% responded in the affirmative. Young women all over the country and the internet are talking about and doing activism for gender equality and they are doing it at an age when the pressures to sexualize themselves, find a romantic partner, and assume the role of “woman” as seen on TV is at it’s highest. Many are doing it in educational institutions that act as bubbles of perfect equality before that bubble pops upon entering the workplace. Instead of asking why more young women aren’t identifying as feminist, why aren’t we remarking on how many are, against all odds?

Some older feminists do that, of course. I have many wonderful older friends and colleagues who’ve never denied my lived experience and who have worked with me on feminist projects for years. This speech is not to them or about them but to the small part of their group that, like the actually apathetic “I’m not a feminist but” part of my group, has it completely and utterly wrong. If you’ve found yourself here as a skeptical older feminist or a skeptical, “women are equal, right??” young non-feminist,  go check out the 30+ posts in this young feminist carnival. See what this whole newfangled thing is all about. Get inspired, get excited, get pissed off and take action. That, after all, will change the world far faster than sitting around debating the existence of unicorns.

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Gucci Ads: Dead Women Are In for Autumn

Here we go again with the high fashion obsession with beautiful, dead women. Gucci’s fall ad campaign was shot in the Marrakech desert but the photos look like something from an episode of CSI.

Hell, if I wore an ostrich motorcycle jacket and velvet pants into the middle of the Moroccan desert, and brought along a $2400 bag instead of a canteen, I’d probably drop dead too. But “dead in the dirt” is creepy and unsettling, no matter how high the heels. In this photo, Raquel Zimmerman and Joan Smalls lie prone and limp while a man circles them like a vulture, taking in the grotesque view.

Same models, same prone poses. Is that their car in the background? Did the expressionless man highjack and kill them? What’s he going to do with them now that they’re sprawled on his hood?

Of course, you can’t do a beautiful corpse ad campaign without at least one picture that expressly hints at violence and rape. In this shot, Nikola Jovanovic is perched upon his golden throne leering down at Raquel Zimmerman, whose skirt is hiked up to her thigh, legs askew. His foot positioned strategically over her throat makes it disgustingly clear he can do, perhaps already has done, whatever he likes to the motionless model.

Gucci certainly isn’t the first to use female dead bodies in their ads. Beautiful corpses are an extension of the almost universal objectification of women in advertising combined with the trope that says helpless, silent women are the best kind. Rendering women dead, or at least disturbingly unconscious, strips them of their agency and sexualizes violence against them. Gucci’s glorification of violence normalizes something that’s already far too prevalent – in the United States, 3 women per day are murdered by their intimate partners. Something tells me those crime scenes are decidedly less picture perfect.

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Is it ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’? Does it Still Matter?


Yesterday I received a tweet from the Oxford University Press account inquiring as to my feelings about the use of ‘Miss’ versus ‘Ms.’ in relation to myself and modern feminism. The question was accompanied by a link to this article by University of Illinois Professor Dennis Baron, which traces the term ‘Ms.’ to all the way back to 1767 and chronicles its’ various political meanings or lack thereof henceforward. He notes an instance as early as 1913 of feminist attempts to institute a title for women, like Mr. for men, that was free of reference to age or marital status, a goal that didn’t meet with much success until the Second Wave of feminism and the release of Ms. Magazine in 1971.

Like being able to sit unaccompanied in a bar or get credit in my name without a husband of male relative as a co-signer, the pretty much universal understanding that women as well as men should and do have a title that doesn’t convey marital status is one of those wins of the feminist movement for which my generation often seems ungrateful because it’s been a matter of fact our whole lives. Actually, the New York Times — about sixteen years late to the party as per usual – finally declared Ms. “fit to print” in 1986, the year I was born. Long before I consciously identified as a feminist, and even while I was calling myself a good Southern Baptist girl, I preferred the term ‘Ms.’ to ‘Miss’ simply because I didn’t want any part of anything that encompassed both Miss America and Little Miss Muffet.

It wasn’t, however, until I began to strongly identify as a feminist in college that I used ‘Ms.’ as a political statement, though not the straightforward one against the, to my millennial eyes, blatant sexism of the titles that Professor Brown and the Oxford University Press would probably expect. I read Gloria Steinem’s quip, “I refuse to be referred to as Miss Steinem of Ms. Magazine,” as both an example of the humor members of an oppressed group must possess while fighting that oppression and a reminder of the battle feminists before fought for me to be able to take for granted that women should have an equivalent to ‘Mr.’ Since I was deprived of this important piece of feminist activism in even my college classes, I began using the title ‘Ms.’ as a gentle point of re-education on women’s history as I traveled across the country speaking at universities.

That’s the political significance that influenced, in part, my choice to use ‘Ms.’ in the title of my blog. It serves as a short but meaningful signifier to my readers that everything in my life, and therefore the blog’s content, is shaped by my feminism. It’s also a reference to the humorous and common mistitling of the film made on my high school activism as ‘The Miseducation of Shelby Knox,” as if my journey from conservative Republican to feminist activist was an ill-fated comedy of errors. Most importantly, however, ‘Ms.’ in my blog title is a conscious homage to the Second Wave women who continue to be invaluable in my evolution as a young adult feminist activist.

I know there are women who choose to use ‘Miss’ for a variety of reasons, including as a rejection of the feminism that’s inextricably, at least in modern times, implied in choosing ‘Ms.’ instead. This is an exercise of the self-determination that’s inherent to feminism and I don’t take issue with these women or their decisions. I am less tolerant of companies, like Vista Print, that refuse to offer ‘Ms.’ as an option in the dropdown menu of possible titles when ordering a product online. Which feminine title is a lesbian woman who is prohibited by law from marrying her life partner supposed to choose? What possible relationship could one’s marital status have to a desire to order cheap business cards? As Professor Brown notes, ‘Ms.’ is now a commonly accepted manner in which to refer to half the population and modern companies should get with the times, if only to indicate to consumers like me that they’re not endorsing the sexism and homophobia underlying a forced choice between ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’ (For the record, Vista Print, me and several friends have taken our business elsewhere because of this issue.)

Am I going to spend much of my time lobbying companies to provide all three title options for women or monitoring media outlets to make sure they use ‘Ms.’ to refer to female newsmakers without regard to their marital status? No, mostly because that work was done by feminists of previous generations. Instead I’ll fight the sexism endemic in a society that still correlates a woman’s worth with a ring on her finger by getting rid of gendered pay disparities and establishing more social services for single mothers. And I’ll be Ms. Scary Feminist as I do it, thank you very much!

***Question to readers: Do you use the term ‘Ms.’? Why or why not? If you speak another language, what are the feminine titles that traditionally differentiate between a married and unmarried woman and is there an alternative similar to Ms.?

CORRECTION: Post updated at 2pm EST on 8.17.10 to correctly cite Professor Dennis Baron, the author of the Oxford University Press blog post, who was misnamed in the original post.

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