Feminist Utopia Podcast
Transcript for Episode 11
Benita: Welcome to Feminist Utopia, a community dedicated to envisioning and creating a
more just society for all.
Welcome to Feminist Utopia, and Happy 4th of July. It’s probably not the 4th, but I think it’s
close enough! Debby and I thought that focusing on patriotism during July would be an
interesting way to talk about our feminist utopia and how patriotism falls into that. We’re
imagining a world where equality is the norm and acceptance is the norm… and people
come together as patriotic members of society.
Debby: I could be a patriot for Feminist Utopia! We need a flag.
Benita: Oh that’s an interesting idea! We will definitely need a flag.
But especially around the 4th of July, we see a lot of flags and we thought it’d be interesting
to examine the flag today and the history. So thank you for joining us… and here we go!
Debby: It was interesting when we started talking about flags we just thought of the
American flag and all these other flags that are currently important. It was a very interesting
episode to research, especially with Betsy Ross. For our non-US listeners, Betsy Ross is a
cherished myth. Sorry I’m not supposed to say that… The Americans might get offended
when I say this. Betsy Ross making the first American flag is a myth. Let’s just start with
Debby: What’s interesting is Betsy (Elizabeth) Ross was a businesswoman in Philadelphia.
And she probably only made flags for military staff members or naval flags. But 90 years
after the Revolutionary War, her grandson in Victorian times started perpetuating this story
of his grandmother as this woman who did this flag, and she was the epitome of Victorian
womanhood. When really Betsy Ross was a businesswoman who supported the
Revolutionary War and lost 2 husbands to it! That Betsy Ross would stand there and gently
suggest to General Washington that putting an extra point on the star, making it a five point
star was what he should do… And he was like yes, yes you are such a woman of virtue! We
love your ideas, and now you can sew us the flag. Now Betsy Ross’ house is a major tourist
attraction in Philadelphia.
Benita: Right. And it’s a cherished story just George Washington chopping down the cherry
tree and saying I cannot tell a lie. But like that story, there’s little truth to it. There’s no
record of the Betsy Ross incident discussed in any official or anecdotal documents of the
time. But a couple of reasons I think that the myth survives is… In the 19th century, ordinary
women made history.
Benita: And by that I mean that they literally recorded the history. They told the stories,
attached the importance to family relics. They joined honorary societies and carried flags at
public events. So it was the women that were telling the stories. And they created a version
of America and American history that broke down the boundaries between the male world
of war and politics and the supposedly domestic worlds of women. And they did so not by
challenging women’s exclusion from politics (because of course they couldn’t vote or
participate at that time), but they did it by elevating their devotion to the state and creating
this Betsy Ross myth of a heroine that was so devoted to her country and hand-sewed this
flag for the glory of the state. And that’s one of the reasons why the myth survived I think!
Debby: The myth is so strong, I remember during the Bicentennial… I’m old enough to
remember the Bicentennial.
Benita: Oh I totally remember the Bicentennial!
Debby: But my class, we all dressed us as little Betsy Rosses with these little colonial caps.
And we had to sit there, and we sang this song about sewing things. We had sewing hoops
and we were… it’s the first time I ever held a needle! And my mom was mad that we were
singing a song about a woman who sewed a flag. I didn’t get it. I just liked the hat. I was
six? But this idea that that was how women could contribute by creating the symbols that
the men could fight for… It’s a European concept. It goes back to the middle ages where
women would grant their knights their favors, their little handkerchiefs. And so the knights
could fight for them in duels or tournaments. So it was an outgrowth of that. I still have my
Betsy Ross hat!
Benita: I was eleven. During the Bicentennial, my family took a road trip. And I went to
Betsy Ross’ house in Philadelphia, and we saw the Liberty Bell. And we drove all the way
down to Florida, and we went to Disneyworld. But they had Bicentennial parades every
night and fireworks…. And like Mickey Mouse and Minnie walk around? They had Betsy Ross
and George Washington walk around, and I do remember that fondly.
Debby: But it’s interesting how they make Betsy Ross like the founding mother. When you
look at the fact that Martha Washington pretty much funded George’s little forays into the
continental army, the women that were thinkers, the women that promoted enlightenment
ideals… But we idolize someone who made flags and probably not even the flag we idolize
her for making! So I find it very interesting. It comes back to the concept of the importance
of flags. Americans get irrationally angry, I feel, about burning a flag or doing this or you
know…. If you’re not worshipping the flag then somehow you’re desecrating them
Benita: Nationalism in the form of a flag isn’t really unique to America. But what is unique I
think is this reverence for it and the way it’s embodied in the flag. So Marc Leepson, the
author of Flag, An American Biographyobserved that the near religious adoration that many
Americans have with their flags is unlike anything in the rest of the world. Some historians
go so far as to call it “the cult of the flag.” And [they] believed it emerged in the wake of the
Civil War and exploded in the late-1800s. And then you have the more recent history. There
was a split over the flag that happened during the Vietnam War. Conservatives saw the flag
as a symbol of freedom and military might. And those on the left who opposed the war
decide that they’d no longer pledge allegiance to it. It’s during those times of conflict that
the flag increasingly became a symbol of a kind of patriotism, a more militaristic patriotism,
kind of a racial patriotism and a celebration of a white America.
Debby: That makes a lot of sense. There’s some research that’s come out, it’s called Terror
Management Theory. It says that we invest heavily in symbolic cultural institutions and
identifications because they insulate us from the fears about our own mortal predicament.
We’re going to die. What kind of legacy are we going to leave? And if you see things
coming apart at the seams like during the Vietnam War… or if you really do believe part of
your legacy is white supremacy and the Civil Rights movement happens. These things
become such an issue to your own personal identity and safety. Basic idea is: From a
scientific perspective, each of us is an organism that wants to continue to survive, but we’re
no more significant or enduring than any other thing on this earth. But unlike our cats or our
dogs, we know that we are mortal. My cat doesn’t worry about it. He worries about how I’m
not treating him right. Terror management theory says we cope with this knowledge by
viewing ourselves as part of something bigger, be it the Catholic Church or the American
Marine Corp. I mean I know the U.S. Marine Corps was my dad’s primary identification. And
so, it lets us feel we’re special. If you stop treating those sacred things as special, then
they’re going to go into oblivion and die.
Benita: Right. I mean if you look at what happened after 9/11, and the proliferation of flags
that were everywhere. It was a moment of kind of national unity and pride again in the flag,
but not for everyone. Some cab drivers, especially Sikhs, displayed flags from their cars so
they wouldn’t be attacked. So these flags and other political symbols really get their
meaning from their impact. When flags are flown at certain events, the flags become
symbols of that. The confederate flag flown at the white supremacist rally…
Debby: …or the Nazi flag, the swastika flag… There’s another one. “Fine people on both
Benita: Flags are flown at rallies alongside other symbols of hate and messages of white
supremacy. The flags become synonymous with that ideology. And even after the rally is
over, the symbolic meanings don’t get left behind. They become part of that intimidation
and hate that they are intended to convey.
Debby: And they want it that way. It unites their members and makes them feel like they’re
part of something bigger. And I think the confederate flag is a perfect example of that in
terms of American context. The Nazi flag has a more international flare. But for white
supremists that are really tied up in white identity being an American thing, they tend to
default to the confederate flag. The confederate flag wasn’t even the flag of the
confederacy! This is what I was stunned by. It was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee. And it
didn’t come into prominence until the time period that you discussed earlier Benita where
women were making the history and telling the stories and joining these societies like The
Daughters of the American Revolution. In the 1890s, The Daughters of the Confederate Army
came about. And that was also the time when the resurgence of the KKK came and… The
confederate flag became the symbol of the lost cause about those poor white supremist
southerners who were just defending states’ rights. And we need to put up monuments to
them. And we need to let black people know that Jim Crow is now the law, and
reconstructionist times are over. It was purposefully a symbol of white supremacy. And
women, white women in the South took part in it because they wanted to! They wanted this
identity. And they used the confederate flag to do that. So now when you see someone in
Eastern Washington… I saw this on the highway, people flying confederate flags. I’m like
first of all, you can’t say that’s your culture. You see it in Michigan. Really, really?? That’s
your culture? You know that Michigan had some of the best battle groups in the Civil War.
But they tremendously instill the idea that even though they lost the Civil War, they still got
to maintain their white supremacy. And anybody who tells you the confederate flag is not
about white supremacy doesn’t know anything other than they want to be part of that, too.
They can say all they want, but if that’s your culture then own it!
Benita: I mean we do live in a time when these white nationalist rallies have been on the
rise. And when you put the confederate flag and these other flags together with the
American flag, it’s almost like saying that the values of inclusion and peace and justice aren’t
American values… our values of white supremacy are the values.
Debby: Yes, and it’s still going on now. The United Daughters of the Confederacy still
exists. They put up a lot of these confederate statues that we need to take down. And they
do this because I think they believe they gain status in this form of southern womanhood.
They are taking scraps from the patriarchal table and have perpetuated violence against
people of color and nonconforming white women ever since its founding all the way up
through 2019. The female governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey doubled down with her support of
Roy Moore that senate candidate who liked to creep on young girls. And she also says we
need to bring the confederate flag back to Alabama and all these other things. 2019!
Benita: It’s just insidious! And we know also from the social justice movements, that the
impact is greater than the intent. People want to say the confederate flag is heritage, not
hate. But when it has been used as an intimidation tool by extremists, you can’t all of a
sudden now say “oh we didn’t mean it that way, and this is what it really means.” No. We’re
still sitting in a time where the American flag invokes feelings of terror for an increasing
number of people. And it’s the most vulnerable among us that experiences that terror the
worst. And you don’t have to look any further than the concentration camps that are in
existence along our border. These immigration centers are full of flags and pictures of
Donald Trump and the American flag. And a new generation of young children and these
vulnerable immigrants are learning to associate the flag with terror and hate and lack of
human rights and dignities.
Debby: Well, maybe they can get together and discuss with the Vietnamese people, too…
like how do you cope with that? How do you deal with that when the flag is everywhere?
But we have a long history of this flag causing fear in people, and I’d like to be part of the
group that changes that moving forward. And step one is to get kids out of concentration
camps… and I’m Jewish and yes, they are concentration camps. Don’t come at me with your
weak tea about saying it’s co-opting something from the Holocaust… because it is so… The
use of flags, especially in authoritarian cultures is a well-known phenomenon. Jonathan
Haidt talks about it in his books. And so, it’s not surprising that there have been additional
flags created. The confederate flag was created in the 1890s to scare the hell out of people
and make sure black people knew their place. And then in more recent times, we have the
blue lives matter flag.
Benita: Yeah, and I was surprised to learn that that was just a thing since 2014, and it was
created by a 19 year old University of Michigan student named Andrew Jacob. And he’s got
meanings for everything. The black above represents citizens and the black below
represents criminals in his description… despite the fact that those on the wrong side of the
line are typically citizens themselves. That’s just an afterthought. And his business, the thin
blue line, has sold some like 50,000 flags, t-shirts, hats, hoodies… And then that whole
“blue lives matter” movement: It began in December 2014 after the slaying of New York City
police officers and as a rebuttal to Black Lives Matter. And the idea was that Blue Lives
Matter was supposed to be the insistence that we pay more attention to cops killed in the
line of duty. It’s just a real racist symbol… I can’t even… can’t even articulate how frustrated
I am with this flag and what it represents! That thin blue line flag is associated with
messages about fighting the Islamic State, illegals, socialism. They also recall media reports
on police violence and say that the media itself is seen as an enemy of law and order. And
it’s almost as if that blue line on the flag is that question of which side are you on? Are you
going to fly this flag and be on the side of law enforcement or are you going to deny the flag
and be on the side of chaos and murder?
Debby: …and those bad black people. This is so, like the confederate flag, based in racism
whether they believe it or not. And I find that just disgusting. This has always bothered me
about the blue lives matter movement. First of all, you’re not born blue. You choose to be
blue. And the idea that being a cop is a super dangerous thing… there are other occupations
that have higher injury and death rates. And if you’re not unconditionally supporting the
police, then you’re a hateful awful person. And you just want to support criminals. It’s the
othering. There are flags that aren’t about othering and we’ll end on a positive note about
that flag. But it’s really difficult to find a common ground when the flag itself is designed to
say you’re okay, and you’re not.
Benita: Right, and what’s really dangerous about this is these authoritarian movements
subvert the rule of law in the name of order. And then eventually the new order becomes
law. So it’s gone so far where policy makers across the United States are introducing bills
proposing that police be included under hate crime protection, as if there wasn’t already
enough protections for the police. They want to say that hurting them is a hate crime.
Communities that have attempted to regulate the thin blue line flag: A law proposed in Ohio
would afford it a favored status, not extended to the flag of black lives matter which features
nothing but the movement’s name. So the thin blue line flag is basically the United States
flag in black and white with a thin blue line. And that’s somehow not offensive to the
American flag, but the flag of the black lives matter movement (which has no symbolism
stolen from the United States flag) is somehow more offensive?
Debby: Well, it’s encoding this idea again that if you’re not with us you’re against us, but I
find it really telling that they’re enshrining this flag that copyrighted as a money maker from
some jackass in Michigan. The idea that you can’t say no blue lives matter at our event…
Well, how can you say that? It’s a protected flag! It’s just like the American flag! And
personally I’m increasingly of the feeling that flags just suck all around. But after doing the
research for this episode, what good comes of these things?? But we end on a positive note
I promise. Today was a rough day. Bad decisions coming down from the Supreme Court
and stuff and…
Benita: … my god… It has been a bad day, but we’ve talked about ending on a positive note.
Let’s move towards the Pride Flag, because I believe that is a positive note. It’s a symbol…
Debby: …of inclusion!
Benita: Yeah! And the colors are supposed to reflect the diversity of the community. And
it’s a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual… that plus includes things
I don’t even know right now, but it’s all in there. It was originally devised by an artist named
Gilbert Baker in San Francisco, and it’s now used worldwide. So the flag was typically flown
at embassies during the month of June. Not instead of the American flag, but in conjunction
with. It was practice routinely approved for most of the decade at many embassies. But
now this year under the Trump administration, they denied permission to fly the Pride Flag.
So Mike Pompeo became Secretary of State. He’s an evangelical Christian who believes
marriage is defined as between a man and a woman. And for the first year, he denied all
these requests to fly the flag. And unfortunately, some gay employees in the foreign and
civil service say that the ban on the rainbow flag is just the tip of an iceberg. Pompeo still
hasn’t, as of this recording, issued a statement for Pride Month. It’s the end of June. He did
last year. But he didn’t attend the State Department’s annual Pride Day for two years
running. His predecessors usually did. And a transgender woman Robin McCutcheon, who
has served in several posts abroad for the US is saying it’s death by a thousand cuts. Our
rights as LGBT+ Americans are being eroded with the removal of a guidance here, rewriting
of policy there, or just the quiet disappearance of a website.
Debby: If you take away the image, how can you promote the concept? If you take away the
flag, what will people rally around? Evangelicals are mad, mad, mad, mad, mad about the
Pride Flag. And evidently the people who created the “straight pride flag” thought that the
LGBTQ community took all the colors because their flag is black and white. Pretty much!
There were no other colors they felt safe putting up. But I’m happy to see more pride flags
in stores or… Pike Place market put them up last week all up and down… on the tops of
buildings and… The symbol itself is spreading even as our government diminishes it within
official channels. And I know some people are talking about “rainbow capitalism” and stuff
like that. But if Target thinks they can make a buck selling pride materials…
Benita: …have at it!
Debby: …have at it!
Benita: What is the harm? And I will say that several embassies just basically flouted the
law and flew the flag anyway or they put other symbols up in other places, maybe not a flag
on the flagpole, but a banner hung across the front of the building or… They found a way to
recognize Pride and fly the flag as an ally. And there are a number of states that are doing
things to pass protections for LGBTQ+ people at the state level. Where our federal level is
failing, states are stepping in. And here in Houston, they just passed a protective act for city
workers. So that’s a positive thing.
Debby: It’s great that people are flying the flag around. It’s very prevalent here in Seattle,
because Pride’s this weekend here. Nordstrom even has a whole set of make-up classes you
could go to to celebrate Pride. MAC counter, they have a class for people that are trans who
want to learn how to use make-up. It’s not just transitioning to women, but how do you use
make-up in a non-binary way. It’s such a different world to me after being in Texas!
Benita: Yeah, but Houston had our Pride parade last weekend. And it was huge and…
Actually this was the first year in about five years that I didn’t march in the parade. I missed
it. And I’ll probably go back next year.
Debby: Okay good. Which kind of takes us into our action item. You didn’t think y’all were
getting off easy, did ya? We always have something for you to do!
Benita: Right, and I saw this on my Facebook feed. Maybe you saw it on yours as well. It
actually was from Texas, a couple from Round Rock, Texas. They got a note from a neighbor
and they were touched by the note and posted it on facebook. And it from one of their
younger neighbors that was moving away, but took the time to thank them for flying the
Pride flag. And the note said that “seeing a Pride flag so proudly outside your house
everyday has given me the courage to come out to my family and be more comfortable with
who I am.” So flying a Pride flag inspires others not only to feel comfortable but also push
to expand protections for the LGBTQ community. And I hope that you’ll take this
opportunity to fly a Pride flag, not just during Pride month but all year round. Because
whatever small things we can do to be visible really can make a difference. And you might
not know that difference, but it does make a difference to somebody.
Debby: And making a difference to one is making a huge difference. I don’t want people to
underestimate the power of one in situations like that. It’s been a difficult history for LGBTQ
people in America and it’s not likely to get a whole lot better in the next two years. Knowing
that they have community and knowing that they’re seen and recognized for who they are, is
going to become increasingly important.
Benita: Exactly. So fly that Pride flag!
Debby: Get that Pride sticker. Put it on your computer.
Benita: Honestly, I don’t have one and I’m going to go get one! I’m going to get one for my
car. I’ll put it on my car.
Debby: I changed out my old Pride sticker on my computer. I still have my HERO one from
Houston, and I have to explain it to people.
Benita: Yeah, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. We did not get it passed in its entirety,
but honestly the city did pass some protections recently so we’re moving in that direction.
Debby: And if the federal government won’t do it, we can do it at the local and state levels.
Debby: And that’s a cheery note to end on!
Benita: Thanks for listening! Have a good week.
Debby: Bye! Thank you so much for joining us today at Feminist Utopia. If you like our
work, please give us a review on Itunes, Stitcher, or wherever you access our podcast so
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Benita: And check out our blog and other resources at our website: FeministUtopia.net
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Feminist Utopia is created by Debby Williams and Benita Malone.