Archive for July, 2009

Really, women’s work is never done.

At a time when we’re told that work-life balance is the great mirage; at a time when women are still punching the clock on the “second shift”; at a time when kickass young women are still stuck trying to decide how and where they fit into the world of work …

At a time when there is so much unfinished business for feminists to attend to? We get this?

This, according to NPR, Reuters and others, being Hollywood’s new vision of “Do me” feminism: A 30 minute HBO comedy, starring Diane Keaton as “a feminist icon who decides to reignite the movement by starting a sexually explicit magazine for women.”

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. Good for the goose, good for the gander. (Although it does kind of smack of the way Hollywood frames First Amendment fights in terms of Larry Flynt. Oops. Did I bring that up again?) We all love Diane Keaton. The show should be gloriously funny, especially on HBO. And I’m sure I’ll watch it.

But please don’t call it feminism. Or use it to imply we’ve come a long way, baby.

Jezebel.com was among the many who reported on the upcoming show as the greatest thing for women since the Equal Rights Amendment (Oh wait. Still haven’t passed it.) But, like NPR, Reuters and Salon.com’s Broadsheet, Jezebel used a money quote that revives a couple of 1970’s stereotypes that, in the long run, may have stalled the momentum — even though the generalizations only applied to a handful of women:

Perhaps HBO is trying to do penance for or regain female viewers lost after Sex And The City went off the air? In any case, Marti Noxon [the show's producer] says she’s wanted to do a show that touches on feminism for a while; she was 12 when her mom came out as a radical feminist lesbian and had to juggle her mom’s beliefs with her own interests: “I wanted to be a gal, I was very interested in men, and I wanted to shave my legs,” Noxon says. The concept of the Diane Keaton project — an older lady working at a porn mag — sounds awesome. As long as they don’t call it Hot Flash.

Stereotype number one, in case you didn’t notice: Back in the day, only lesbians had street cred as feminists. Stereotype number two: you can’t fight for women’s rights if you happen to wear a skirt — or like boys, for that matter. Didn’t we get over that, long ago? Feministing.com, in fact, just referenced a new study that exploded the myth that feminists are man-haters. The study found that “contrary to popular belief, feminists reported lower levels of hostility toward men than did nonfeminists.”

Salon.com’s Broadsheet was a bit more circumspect in its report, pondering whether “the series will amount to f*ck-me feminism or lightweight “lifestyle” activism. But maybe, just maybe, the show will bravely explore those competing influences of feminism and mainstream sexual culture.”

But still. Aren’t we leaving something out?

A few years back, I did a story on a houseful of edgy, independent young women about to graduate from college who refused to call themselves feminists. I asked them why:

It’s a spectrum issue, they said first. They’d be more likely to call themselves feminists if they could explain where on the scale they fell. What they don’t want is to stick to the label, all or nothing. “I don’t want to be – I’m a feminist, but… ” said Tessa. “I think a lot of people perceive feminists as being so hard-core – men-haters, almost masculine.”

They said they’ve never experienced gender discrimination. They’ve never been in a class where they were dismissed because of gender, never been told they couldn’t do something – or had to do something – because of their sex. Never – yet – faced discrimination on the job. Battles fought, battles won, they said. Old news.

“I’ve grown up and had every opportunity,” said Kate, who conceded that without the benefit of privilege this might have been a different conversation.

“Therefore, it’s hard to identify with the word feminist because, for me, it’s the norm. Now it seems radical to say feminist. It’s hard to get passionate about a cause when you haven’t faced the consequences of what you’re fighting for.”

Later, we talked about patriarchy and the need to change institutions. One woman wondered if such change wouldn’t require some sort of movement. But, another one said, “you have to be oppressed to have a movement. And we’re slowly working forward.”

Really? With all the work still left to do? Instead we’ve got Hollywood portraying feminism’s last frontier as owning our own porn. And we’re supposed to cheer.

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“If life is just a series of decisions, then making smart ones is paramount, especially now.” So begins a piece from this month’s Elle magazine, entitled “Analyze This: Should you go with your head or your heart?” In it, writer Louisa Kamps goes on to explore the ways in which fear — which, she implies, is in abundant supply these days, especially on the work front — mucks up the decision-making circuitry in our brains. She writes:

Fear has a way of leading us to dubious decisions, sloppy mistakes, and serious brain fog when it comes to figuring out a master plan for your career and all the major things it’s connected with, from finances to relationships.

So, in addition to the sleep, skin, overall health and relationship havoc stress hormones can wreak, apparently they screw up our decisions as well. Swell. And if that’s the case, then what does this mean for those of us who find the very prospect of making a decision stressful? Other than that we’re screwed.

Kamps cites some science, saying that, when we relax, our prefrontal cortexes tend to follow suit, leaving us better able to see the big picture. But even still. The big picture can be even more confusing. More factors to consider. More stress. So, then, when facing a huge decision, how do we decide? Kamps goes on:

Experts say people tend to make major life decisions either out of ‘a crystallization of discontent,’ when a situation becomes unbearable, or out of ‘a crystallization of desire,’ when they feel a surge of enthusiasm for a new idea. ‘People are much more satisfied when they’ve made decisions not only out of fear but out of desire,’ says Jack Bauer, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Dayton.

So, that’s something to shoot for. But might this all have something to do with why sitting around, idling in neutral is so self-perpetuating? We sit around, analyzing every little thing, which stresses us out, which limits our ability to make any decision at all, which leads to more sitting around… Oy. But, for those of us interested in kicking it into gear, I wonder: maybe the fear, the stress we feel in the face of making a decision is something to simply take note of–and rather than focusing on which way we’re going to go, maybe we’d do better if we shifted our perspective, and took it as an opportunity to get to know ourselves better, to discern what it is we really value. What is it that’s pulling us to it, and what it is that’s pushing us away? And maybe, when we look at it like that, is becomes easier to decide which direction to go.

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It’s not just us. It’s not just you. Choice overload, making work work, analysis paralysis — it’s everywhere you look. Just a few quick hits:

Surfing for Mr. Good Date? Technology Review reports a new study out of the Harvard Business School that suggests that, when it comes to online dating, you might still be better off letting your Auntie Marge set you up. Or, uh, going back to your local pub.

The study found that cyberdating, with it’s freakishly large supply of would-be beaus, leads to cognitive overload. In other words, bad decisions or no decisions at all. The study found that would-be daters spend about 12 hours a week searching for and emailing Mr. Right. The payoff? About two hours of awkward face-time. According to coauthor Michael Norton, date seekers

evaluate each person only superficially, never investing the time and energy to explore whether a match might work.” Having too many options raises our expectations of potential matches too high, leading to an “often fruitless search for an ideal person who may not exist.” Incessant browsing for Mr. or Ms. Right may be exactly the wrong decision …

Back to the buzzkill of opportunity cost? Another study out of Taiwan also found that online dating often led to, well, bad dates. The reason? You guessed it: too much information. Pai-Lu Wu from Cheng Shiu University and Wen-Bin Chiou from the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan concluded that

“more search options lead to less selective processing by reducing users’ cognitive resources, distracting them with irrelevant information, and reducing their ability to screen out inferior options.” In other words, when faced with cognitive overload, date-seekers evaluated as many matches as possible, even ones that weren’t a good fit, and they were less able to distinguish a good option from a bad one.

In other words, choice overload strikes again. Which leads us to this comforting hit of validation from Wicked Local, a news site out of Dennis, a very cool town on Cape Cod. The story reported on an upcoming event at a local inn with three successful “chick lit” authors — Lynn Bonasia, Jane Green, and Jennifer Weiner, author of “In Her Shoes.” Weiner tells the Wicked that her stories are inspired by real life:

“I’m especially interested in the choices women of my generation face — we’re probably the first generation to have the relatively high-class problem of too many choices about career, family, marriage and timing — and I think that, in a way, my books are attempts to answer those questions for myself and for my readers,” she said.

Fiction follows fact, yet again.

And finally, again. MediaWeek reports that Candace Bushnell (In case you’ve just woken up from a ten-year nap, she wrote “Sex and the City”) has teamed up with More Magazine to produce a web series — Honestly, I have no idea what that might be. But I digress — on women’s work issues.

More editor Lesley Jane Seymour said she hopes the series will become the “next Lipstick Jungle.

“It’s funny, and a lot of women will recognize themselves,” she said. “There’s the Millennial and Boomer women, all representative of different crowds we see in business.”

Funny? Well, sometimes. Let’s scope our the series before it starts. Back in the real world, and on a slightly more serious note, what would top your list of those work issues? Tell us: anything from work-life balance to blowing that first paycheck.

And there you are. The Zeitgeist. It is us.

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Here’s a newsflash. Women and men are different. This, I realize, is likely not news to you, but an item I came across yesterday might be. The piece in question, “Why Corporate Women Are More Likely to Blow the Whistle” by Maureen Tkacik, appeared on Slate’s DoubleX, and saw me go from zero to completely riled up by the end of the first page. In it, Tkacik talks about “a veritable Davos of Bitches Who Told You So,” including Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins, Brooksley Born–former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, who spent three years pushing for derivative regulation only to be shushed by Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin; Sheila Bair, the only government regulator who can credibly claim to have seen the crisis coming; and Genevievette Walker-Lightfoot, an SEC attorney who smelled a rat in Bernie Madoff-land, way back in 2004.

Such examples are all the more amazing when you consider not just Who and What these women were speaking out against, but when you consider how few women there are in the position To speak out on such issues in the first place. But back to Watkins, who, post-Enrongate, was named one of Time magazine’s 2002 “People of the Year.” At that time, when asked whether she thought women were somehow more ethical than men, Watkins said no. But it seems that, with the passage of seven years, came a change of heart. And perhaps a willingness to claim la difference. Tkacik writes:

She thinks women are more likely to blow the whistle than men, for reasons that have as much to do with nature as with nurture…. Watkins became convinced whistle-blowing was one of the few types of “risk” that come more naturally to women after meeting Judy Rosener, best known for a somewhat controversial 1990 Harvard Business Review article that encouraged working women to stop imitating men and embrace a “women’s way of leading.”

Now, it’s long been believed that, in the battle of the sexes, men are the natural-born risk takers. But, according to Rosener, it depends on what kind of risk we’re talking about: one, which one takes with the encouragement of an audience (think Deal or No Deal… or shortsighted shareholders) is where men tend to excel. The other, which Rosener calls “moral risk” is the kind that one takes in spite of the audience’s disapproval. And that kind is where women excel. Tkacik continues, saying:

In addition, when women see wrongdoing, they try to fix it within their own organizations. Men, by contrast, tend to alert the media–even though women whistleblowers are the ones more often portrayed as opportunistic “media darlings” chasing Erin Brokovichian adulation.

So yes, in that respect, women are often damned if we do, and damed if we don’t. But that’s not my point (today). Today, my point is this: plotted against a timeline of the modern workplace, women are relatively new to the game. And it made sense that, upon our initial entree, our strategy was to blend in, to play like the boys, even to look like them (one word: shoulderpads). We downplayed our differences, fearing that, if the men smelled fear, insecurity, or Chanel #5, we’d be at an immediate disadvantage. Or maybe kicked out of the club for good. But it seems to me that every time we choose not to own our womanness — and all the differences (like the willingness to blow the proverbial whistle and the tendency to be discreet about it, all despite the fact that we’ll likely be vilified for it) inherent to that womanness — we do ourselves and our gender as a whole a disservice. Several months ago, I came across this interview with Elizabeth Lesser, founder of the Omega Institute, which really gets to the core of the issue. Among other things, Lesser considers how Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to have a “Gender” speech on par with Obama’s “Race” speech — a legacy of the early working woman’s Pretend You’re One of the Boys mantra, perhaps — as a significant factor in her undoing. (On the other hand, look at the treatment Sotomayor received for being forthright on the subject, and who can blame Madame Secretary?) When asked about the recent formation of Omega’s Women’s Institute, Lesser says:

We’ve had centuries of power and leadership where men have been at the helm. There’s some real serious gaps in representation in the world. And also the world’s in trouble. What would happen if women became empowered and could lead from their core basic values? Not just let’s put women into a structure that is about up-down power, like I have power over you. But what if women could actually influence the way power was wielded in the world, from a core feminine place. … The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

Which leads us right back to Rosener’s words about embracing a “women’s way of leading,” nearly twenty years old, and still, so much easier said than done. And she and Lesser are talking about change on the macro level. But I think it’s relevant on the personal level, as well. Because it’s a choice — and maybe acknowledging who we really are and where we’re really coming from is one way to make every other decision we face just a little bit easier.

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The San Jose Mercury delivered a triple shot of optimism to go with the morning latte on Saturday morning. The Page One feature, the seventh installment of a 12-part “Life in a Year” series, was all about that first paycheck. The subtext? Making choices work.

The story had me at Studs Terkel. But more about that below.

Early on, reporter Bruce Newman reminds us how rare it is for our first job — “the thing that provides us a living if not a life” — to be our last. No small consolation for those worried about choosing wrong at the gate. But better yet, he defines work via one of Studs Terkel’s greatest oral histories:


In “Working,” the oral history ode to the way we toil by the late Studs Terkel, The Job is described as the start of a search “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash … in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Combine those two thoughts — career choice as trajectory rather than destination plus Terkel’s reminder that any job can have meaning as well as dignity — add the way three newly employed twenty-somethings made their choices, and you’ve got some serious reassurance to spread on your morning bagel. Newman goes on:


Menial or magnificent, the first job — harder than ever to come by now — sets the tone for all the jobs to follow. It’s the first time we feel the weight of serious money in our pockets, and serious responsibilities on our shoulders.

And that, these twenty-somethings seem to show, is a good thing. The story profiles three young adults who seized their options: Gabino Lopez, Jr., son of a farmworker and first in his family to attend college, who a month after graduation started work as a financial analyst at Chevron, where he relishes everything from his paycheck in the high-fives to, yes, even life in a cubicle; Jose Luna III, following his dream — and his father’s footsteps — in becoming a firefighter; and Samantha Go, a poster child for the idea that career is a serial endeavor.

Go blitzed college, graduating from Santa Clara University with a degree in marketing two quarters early to beat the job-search rush. She figured out early what she didn’t want to do via a soul-less internship in a cubicle at a file-management company. That motivated her to find her niche — and apparently, her bliss — as an event planner at Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health at Stanford.

“I didn’t want to be one of those people who’s always changing jobs, or hates their job, so whatever job I got out of college was going to be it for a while,” she said. “But I really didn’t like my desk job at all. If I had to do that every day for the rest of my life, I don’t know what I would have done.”

She now gets paid to taste wine, sample food, and go to parties. She also looks forward to five weeks of vacation.

The moral of the story? First, there’s hope out there, even in this economy. But more importantly, the point is that having choices can help you find your passion. It just depends on how you make those choices work for you.

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A lot of smart chat came our way this week, not only on our blog, but via Facebook and our Facebook fan page. (Not already a fan? Go here.) To join the conversations, click on the links — or become a fan!

My Facebook fave is from Angela, who reported this conversation with her three-year-old, Sidney:

There was a story on the news this morning for Sea World and there was one of the trainers riding the the killer whale. So I told her that we are going to take her to Sea World later this year.
Sidney: ” Can I ride the whale
Me: “Well no, because the trainers that work there can only ride the whale.”
Sidney: “Can I work there when I get big?”
Me: “Yes, of course, that would be fun!”
Sidney: “Can I still be a mommy?”
Me: “Yes, of course you can”
Sidney: “Okay. I will just tell them when I need to go home.”
I thought this was relevant to the topics [on Undecided]. Considering she is 3 years old, she is already thinking about how she is going to juggle work and family. Crazy.

On Learning to Slay the Dragon, Facebook fan Maria writes:

“… laws are merely to EDUCATE people, especially children, teenagers, etc.. that discrimination SHOULD NOT exist … These laws only give an illusion that the society which lives by them is socially advanced. But what truly matters are all the social acts toward those being discriminated [against]...

Leslie also commented on Slaying the Dragon:

Maybe it’s time to just ignore the stinkin’ rules and make work not about slaying dragons but accomplishing something valuable and making a difference? Maybe that will just change the rules. And Tom Coburn needs to get a freakin’ clue…”

She also started a lengthy convo on Nancy Drew:

Even lacking the sporty yellow roadster [ed: hmmm, I always thought it was red], is it time to reconnect with your inner Nancy Drew? I think yes!!!

To which Suzanne replied:

Nancy Drew saved me in my childhood! She gave us great dreams of what life could be like.

Meanwhile, back to the blog: From Damned if you do, damned if you don’t:

Could not have said it better myself. – jenniferlg

This is why more women should go into business for themselves. The only way to change the rules is to play a different game. — Tamara

From Learning to Slay the Dragon:

“… Coburn not only lectured Sotomayor on the “proper role” of judges, but read her the oath of office. This is the tone deafness of someone who truly doesn’t see others as equals. And whenever it happens (race, gender, sexual orientation…) I wonder how “far” we’ve really come. Not very far at all, it seems. — Lotta K.

Some clear-eyed wisdom from a couple of comments to Soulsuck or Soulcraft:

The issue, in part, is that people today tend to see themselves as defined by their profession. I am a lawyer and I consider myself a pretty decent one. But when I leave the office I am a person with outside interests, friends and family. My “lawyer” hat comes off. I am not defined by my career choice and I do not expect (or want) my work to be the most gratifying or interesting part of my life. I would rather be gratified by the personal relationships in my life, the non-work experiences I have (some of which I can only afford because of my day job), and the values I hold dear.

Fifty years ago, most of our parents or grandparents were doing manual labor, blue collar work, or some other non-creative, non-interesting work. They, unlike us, did not believe that they were entitled to some sort of career nirvana. Having a job you love and that fulfills you is a luxury; you are very lucky (and in the minority) if that is your reality. But for most people, it’s not. It’s called “work” for a reason — if you wanted to go work every day, they wouldn’t have to pay you to do it.

I’m not saying that we should stay in careers/positions where we’re miserable — don’t endure torture just for torture’s sake. But set realistic expectations about how good your career can make you feel about yourself and limits on how bad your job can make you feel about yourself. Focus on loving your non-work life and finding your happiness outside of work. — Allison

I really think our generation is in the process of redefining this educational mono-culture that Crawford talks about—which largely prepares us for the “white collar world” of nebulous paper-pushing, ladder-climbing and ultimately indefinable dissatisfying work at a desk. It seems that men and women of younger generations are trying to get back to a “work with your hands” culture. I agree with Alison’s response above, that we must get past this unrealistic notion that our work lives are supposed to somehow define the happiness and success we have in this world. But I also think we need to embrace that contrarian notion that “successful” work doesn’t only exist behind a desk, but can be found at a bakery, in a garden, at a boutique. I still hold that the best job I ever had was working at a bookstore. The work was fun, engaging, never the same and full of varied tasks that broke up the monotony. Its no wonder that “young” vital cities like Portland and Austin, are full of interesting, creative businesses. Younger generations have flocked there to pursue a different kind of American dream—where life is a little more well-rounded, you can own a small business that speaks to your interests—whether that be vinyl records or old letterpresses. — Tamara

Finally, back to Are you Undecided, Too?:

my grandmother lived through the depression. as an adult, she was a fashion model. as a 13 year old, she was shipped off to have a slilenced abortion. she was gorgeous, shamed, intelligent, powerful and ambitions-yet, she always was so controlled. no crying, no complaining. it just wasn’t ladylike. i do not envy that denial. she had her children at a time when women were getting diagnosed with ‘boredom’. no, i do not romanticize that lack of options.

i always wanted to be a journalist, but along the way i fell in love with anthropology-i love those big systems at work moving us and pulling us in every direction. i graduated, got married, was unable to find a job. i was depressed. i tried teaching, hated it. tried being an editorial assistant, and i sucked at answering the phone and fulfilling the magazine’s uber cool image, i tried working for a non profit and was shoved out by the good old boys who ran it. i since had a son who is my life…but now, i am ‘bored’!! so, i have always loved politics and am applying for a graduate degree in public policy. i surely hope it makes me tick! ’cause lord knows i have been waiting… — The Godfather

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So. How’s this for ridiculous? One of the most life-changing, loaded, and deeply personal choices a woman can face is that over whether or not to have children. Rather than listing them, let’s just acknowledge that the pros and cons could go on forever. Let’s also acknowledge that one of the most significant cons of having children might be the impact on a woman’s career; moms with young children are often passed over for promotions, while childless women of childbearing age are often passed over as well, on the grounds that they’ll likely have children soon. Despite the fact that fathers’ roles have begun to change as they’ve become more involved in child-rearing, work-life balance is still considered a women’s issue. And yet. A recent study by Lancaster University prof Dr. Caroline Gatrell found that some employers see their female employees who don’t want children as wanting in some “essential humanity,” and view them as

“cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way that leads to them being excluded from promotions that would place them in charge of others.”

Wow. It’s enough to make me think conspiracy.

It also makes me think of Barbara’s post from yesterday, about the obnoxious way in which Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was condescended to, and the equally obnoxious critiques Surgeon General nom Regina Benjamin has had to endure regarding her weight. But this is not a rant, I promise. Because the thing that strikes me about all of it has to do with choices, and why women in particular find them so difficult. I think often, when deep in the throes of a which-way-should-I-go, part of the angst is the knowledge that, no matter which way we go, we will be judged. In all sorts of ways. We’re judged in ways that men aren’t, and in ways that are often contradictory. And, the damnedest truth of all, we often do it to each other. But we can’t just take our ball (or lack of same) and go home — nor should we. So the question becomes, what do we do?

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The good old boys of last week’s Sonia Sotomayor hearings have some “‘splaining’ to do”, writes New York Times columnist Frank Rich. He frames his argument thus:

… The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here….

He notes the following offenses:

Channeling Ricky Ricardo, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn joked to Sotomayor: “You’ll have lots of ’splainin’ to do.”

South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham suggested to Sotomayor that she had “a temperament problem” and advised that “maybe these hearings are a time for self-reflection.”

And Coburn not only lectured Sotomayor on the “proper role” of judges, but read her the oath of office.

Are you kidding me?

I listened to it all last week, fuming, while hiking to the top of a nearby mountain (okay, it’s a hill), my fist-sized walkman plugged into my ear. But what I heard in the badgering, the condescencion, the patronizing pontificating wasn’t just about politics or race. It had to do with gender.

Would these guys ever have used such a blatantly disrespectful, wheedling, downright dismissive tone with a male nominee — regardless of political differences? Or color? I doubt it.

And while we’re at it, would the so-called fat police have scrutinized a chubby male appointee the way they’ve wagged their fingers at Surgeon General nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin? (For that matter, was Sarah Palin’s hairdo ever really that important?)

What all this tells me is that, even in this shiny new millenium, women are still stuck navigating a whole different world when it comes to the workplace. It makes me wonder, in fact, if this might be one reason why dealing with choice is so much more difficult for women than men: If this scrutiny and condescension is the way it plays for the women at the top of their game, you have to wonder if a measure of the second-guessing, the sense of overwhelm that sometimes paralyzes women in their 20s and 30s stems from an uncertainty as to how to find their way in this unfamiliar turf.

Sure, we women do school well. University structures, especially, support the way we learn and succeed. Overachievers? High expectations? Duly noted and rewarded. But once we get to the workplace? Different kind of rules.

Let’s face it. We missed the socialization. From ancient times, men have been raised to know their job is to slay the dragons, and that they will be alone in doing it. American mythology, too, teaches men that their role is to go, seek and conquer. For generations, men’s roles have been predetermined, and unquestioned: They provide. And workplace — and social — structures have evolved to support the model.

For women, though, relatively new to this world of work, roles are still in flux. We never learned to slay the dragon — we were the pretty princesses waiting back there in the castle — and often, we’re a little confused by the messy nature of reality as opposed to the comfortable fit of school. And so we’re flummoxed. Overwhelmed. We’re feeling our way. Where do we fit in? How do we fit in? Should we fit in?

Do we even want to fit in? In other words, more choices still.

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I quote Ron Livingston, in his iconic role as office cog-cum-construction-worker Peter Gibbons: “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.” You know you’re in trouble when “Office Space” stops making you laugh and starts pissing you off. And, in his prestigious think tank job and despite the PhD in philosophy under his belt, Matthew Crawford, the author of a new book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft” was most definitely in trouble. So, after several months of doing suprisingly little thinking at said think tank, he left, and opened up a motorcycle repair shop. His book is about the satisfaction of an honest day’s work–and how our society places too little value on such work (witness the extinction of shop class). In a recent NPR interview, he said:

Anyone with halfway decent test scores is getting hustled into a certain track, where you work in an office.

He argues that we’ve created an “educational monoculture,” with “only one respectable course” (those words made me think of the creepy meat-grinder scene in Pink Floyd’s The Wall–check the video at the end of this post), and goes on to say:

It takes a real contrarian streak to live more deliberately and make these calls for yourself…

That reminded me of this comment from Tamara, in response to my post about The Uniform Project, and whether less choice leads to more creativity: “I think it really comes down to an individual’s ingenuity and courage to be themselves.” And it does take courage–and a bit of a contrarian streak–to be yourself. Assuming we can find that courage and tap it, Crawford describes the point of work, as he sees it:

The point is to find some work where you can make yourself useful to people in a straightforward way that engages your own judgment and thinking so that your actions feel like they’re genuinely your own.

Seems like a lot to ask for from a job–and yet it also seems so profoundly simple, there’s no way it can’t be true. Leave it to a philosopher. But really. Do you feel like you were steered away from your passions, your soulcraft, in pursuit of…. a job? And, again back to the choices thing, I wonder if, as overwhelmingly inclusive as the whole “you can be whatever you want!” mantra is, it’s all too easy to just get on the conveyer belt, and hope to make some decent… hamburger? Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to be said for hamburger. Security. Benefits (dare to dream). But what about fulfillment? What about passion? Is it possible to have any pudding, if we don’t eat our meat?

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imagesYou have to wonder if Nancy Drew was the first feminist role model for generations of young women.

She was smart, brave, confident: the leader of her pack who scooted around town to scary places — at night, no less — in her very own roadster, convertible top down, with sidekicks Bess and George, and sometimes asexual boyfriend Ned, all letting her call the shots.

And in the end, our Nancy always figured it out.

Apparently prompted by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s admission that she devoured Nancy Drew books as a child, Sunday’s New York Times featured a piece by Jan Hoffman who listed a Who’s Who of confident , accomplished and prominent women in their 40s, 50s and beyond who grew up with Nancy by their side: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Diane Sawyer, Laura Bush, Nancies Grace and Pelosi, and former ground-breaking Congresswoman Pat Shroeder, who was given a stack of Nancy Drew books after she failed Home Ec:

“I needed Nancy Drew,” said Ms. Schroeder. “She was smart and she didn’t have to hide it! She showed me there was another way to live,” added Ms. Schroeder, who would earn her pilot’s license at 15, and become a feminist politician from Colorado. For women like Ms. Schroeder and Judge Sotomayor, the acquisition of the books is central to their Nancy Drew narratives.

Clearly, as Hoffman suggests, Nancy Drew was an inspiration for many of us who came of age in pre-feminist times, supplying through fiction what we couldn’t find in real life. She made life — and choices — seem easy. And possible.

Of course the books were thoroughly unrealistic. Probably even silly. Certainly Nancy led the unexamined life. And, the ultimate deception, Nancy was created by a man. (Yes, Virginia, there is no Carolyn Keene.)

And yet. You have to wonder if the beauty of identifying with Nancy (as opposed to, say, Barbie) when you are young and impressionable is that, somehow, a lesson sticks: Maybe choices are easier when you’ve grown up believing in your own resilience, trusting that you can follow your gut wherever it leads, without second guessing, because in the end — somewhere around page 224 — things always work out.

For the record, I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and still have a box of them out in our garage. Right next to my red roadster.

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