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Archive for the ‘being judged’ Category

I confess: I love shoes.  Especially when they’re high.  Until they wore out, my go-to faves were a pair of black leather ankle boots with dangerously high heels. They were actually pretty comfortable, but I would have worn them anyway because they looked damn good.

I’m also a feminist.

I bring this up because I often ponder the tension between feminism and fashion – the way fashion is often framed as a silly vanity, often driven by our need to please men, rather than ourselves. The trope popped into my noggin again this weekend, after I read a piece in Sunday’s New York Times that seemed to imply that women could be accomplished or fashionable, but rarely both.

The story cast a bemused eye on the new stylistas of Silicon Valley who were “bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion.”  (One interviewee was the 29-year-old founder of a travel start-up who, the reporter noted, was wearing a pair of hot pink Christian Louboutains.  At which point I wondered: if you can actually afford to buy Louboutains – why wouldn’t you?)

Anyway, it got me to thinking:  Are fashion and feminism ever compatible? Can you maintain professional cred in serious stilettos?  And why, when you dress to impress is there the assumption that who you are aiming to please is the patriarchy?

For some food for thought, I turned to a couple of smart women, who are both rather stylish in their own right.  The first is an expert on gender politics, Shira Tarrant, a California State University, Long Beach women’s studies professor whose new book “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style” uses fashion to deconstruct the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality.  When I asked if fashionistas could be taken seriously as feminists, her answer was “absolutely”:

And feminists can be taken seriously as fashionistas. Feminists have a bad rap when it comes to fashion. We’re accused of being frumpy, unattractively braless, and inexcusably hirsute. But the fact is that feminism has always paid attention to the politics of style, and many feminists are incredibly fashionable.

Still, she says, when it comes to fashion as a lens to understanding  — and changing — gender politics, consider the context:

We live in a patriarchal, capitalist culture. We can never completely separate our fashion choices from the social structures we live in. But that doesn’t mean we’re always victims of our culture, either.  Fashion can be self-objectifying. At the same time, fashion can push back against a culture that keeps insisting that women hypersexualize ourselves. Fashion can be used to subvert the status quo, but the question is whether we can ever fully achieve this — especially without more sweeping economic and political change.

We’re always grappling with this tension between self-expression and self-objectification. The question is how do we remove the gendered penalties of self-expression. Our culture still encourages women to be attractive and pleasing to men. Fashion isn’t exempt from that. At the same time, fashion can be used to subvert these expectations. We can use fashion as a form of pop culture pushback.

Pushback?  Fantastic!  My second source, my colleague Charlotta Kratz, a lecturer in the communication department at Santa Clara University, would agree.

Through my clothes I tell people that I’m not completely what they may assume given my age or profession.  For long periods of time I challenged notions of status through how I dressed. I had a pair of denim overalls that I wore in professional settings.  As an recent immigrant, with an accent, I used to soften my being different by dressing plainly in jeans and t-shirts. I found that when I wore my Scandinavian designer clothes, mostly black, my California students found it harder to understand me.

I don’t think I dress for men. I think I dress to attract people who will “get” me.  Some of those will be men with a possible sexual interest in me. I don’t mind that. I like men and I like innocent everyday flirting. But, some of those people will be other heterosexual women, like my colleagues or students. For them my clothes will be signals of different kinds.

Kratz points out that we communicate through our fashion choices – clothes, hair, bags, cars — to become someone in social settings:

Not washing our cars is a statement. Sporting hairstyles that are carefully created to look as if we never comb our hair says something about us too. Whoever says “I don’t care about how I look” takes a lot of pride, and puts lots of effort into that particular style.

And that’s it, isn’t it? Fashion is simply the signals we send, the way we use artifacts like clothes and shoes to represent ourselves.  As Shannon wrote back when we were in the throes of writing our book (and, ironically, clad most days in scrubs) for most of us, it’s pure self-expression: Clothes, she wrote, “say something to the world about who we are. Or who we want to be perceived to be.”

In other words, it’s a choice: one that I think is more than compatible with feminism. We dress to please ourselves, to show the world who we are.  Which leads back to that frame that won’t go away, that fashion is simply a tool of the patriarchy. As for me, if pleasing men were my goal, I have failed miserably, at least with one man in my life who after decades of marriage still can’t understand why I need more than three pair of shoes – sneakers, flip flops or the moral equivalent, and dress shoes – or why I never leave the house without lipstick.

Anyway, back to Tarrant.  I asked her to describe her own particular style and what she said was this: “My sartorial style skews toward earth tones, black, and grey, with a radical splash of liberation.”

Done!

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I’m off to Mexico tomorrow, and, up until a couple of hours ago, I possessed exactly zero pairs of non-running shorts. Ergo, I sucked it up and made a speed shopping trip between a quick lunch and a (not so quick) meeting so that I might procure a pair or two. And in the dressing room, my internal dialogue was not along the lines of These Are Cute or These Are Heinous, but instead, something more like this: How does my butt look? My thighs? Does the color make my skin look even paler than it already is? Does the cut make me look shorter than I already am? (I suppose it’s no wonder that up until today I owned no shorts. I have better things to do than entertain this variety of nonsense. Like sterilizing mason jars for bulk snacks. Or hunting for unicorns.)

Turns out, though, there’s a reason I do this, and you likely do it, too. And it’s not that we’re obsessed with our looks or have poor body images or are bereft of self esteem. Nope. According to a new study, people–men or women–are basically programmed to view women as a constellation of parts. Arms. Abs. Butt. Lips. Eyes. Toes. Whole person? Not so much. Via Eurkalert, check it out:

When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts. Consider, for instance, photo mosaics consisting of hundreds of tiny pictures that when arranged a certain way form a larger overall image: In fact, it takes two separate mental functions to see the mosaic from both perspectives.
A new study suggests that these two distinct cognitive processes also are in play with our basic physical perceptions of men and women–and, importantly, provides clues as to why women are often the targets of sexual objectification.
The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways. When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on “global” cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of “local” cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.

Now, said study could only show that this is the case, not why this is the case. I, however, am not above speculating: Blame the media, society, your parents or teachers or coaches or friends or Barbie or Vogue, whomever you like. There is no shortage of scapegoats, and they’ve all likely earned at least a little bit of that blame. Even still: argh.

One upside: the study found that, when circumstances were altered to encourage the participants to take a more “global” approach to evaluating the subjects, they were more likely to see the women as whole people. We’ll stay tuned for the study that figures out how to alter the circumstances of life-in-general accordingly.

In the meantime, though, I kind of have to wonder: what if this sort of reductionist objectification isn’t just limited to our physical selves? I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re basically conditioned to view women as Ms. Potatoheads, legs and arms and teeth and butts and breasts and thighs. But what about the rest of it, the other ways we pick ourselves apart? In the same way we judge ourselves (and others) according to a running checklist of physical attributes (I’m tall and I have good hair and pretty toes but no boobs but good abs but my arms could be more toned and my teeth need whitening…), do we dissect ourselves on the other stuff too?  (Well, I’m not that organized but I’m very successful but I should be more physically active and my spiritual life basically consists of praying for good parking spaces but I have good friends but my romantic life’s in the toilet but I am super good with money…)

Am I onto something? Methinks yes. That stuff’s tougher to brush off, sure, but, think for a minute, about that Ms. Potatohead study. It makes you mad, right? It’s clearly wrong, isn’t it? A woman is clearly more than a bucket of parts, isn’t she?

So what if cataloguing the other stuff is just as wrong?

It feels helpful, in a way, to keep score–like we could plug in all the data and then some magical algorithm will spit out a number. To tell us what, though? You are doing ThisWell at life, I guess. But that would be nonsense, because things can look great from the outside and be terrible inside. And things can look not particularly impressive on the outside but be pretty incredible from the inside. A random sampling of body parts gives you no real indication of the whole, but it’s kind of impossible to describe in what way, precisely, that is so. Why the parts, taken separately, are so inadequate. So I just wonder:  What if the dissecting we do of ourselves, the inventories we take of our lives are just as false, just as misleading? What if our value as a person has nothing to do with the score on the checklist? And what if we are, truly, greater than the sum of our parts?

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Between “Are You Mom Enough?” (aka the extremely controversial Time Magazine breastfeeding cover) and Elisabeth Badinter’s extremely controversial book The Conflict, which cast a critical eye on the current trend (among some sets) toward attachment parenting, and the Daily Mail’s latest offense, about the “ambitious career women” who don’t want kids and “enforce childlessness” upon their partners, sometimes you have to wonder whose finger is on the trigger when it comes to the war on women.

While the media and the talking heads sling headlines and talking points, we’re all just left to slug it out. Or, more likely, to reserve the slugs and instead talk behind each other’s backs, feel guilty, worry that we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong. That what we’re doing is wrong.

Which is bad enough. But what kills me is this: When was the last time you saw a magazine cover asking “Are You Dad Enough?” or a piece worrying for the women married to “career-driven” men who deprive them of parenthood? (Then again, men rarely “enforce childlessness” because they generally don’t have to choose between career and parenthood… because mom–whether she’s career-oriented or not–will be there to do the lion’s share. Not to mention the gestating, the birthing, and the breastfeeding. As a friend once observed, for men, parenthood is an addition to everything else in their lives; for women, it’s a choice. The trade-offs are more stark.) Would a man’s choice to embrace his traditional breadwinning role with gusto be marked as an end to progress, or to opt out of parenthood as a harbinger of the downfall of society as we know it?

Men’s roles haven’t changed much. Yes, the dads of today are likely more involved in their children’s lives than their own dads were in theirs. Yes, they probably do more of the chores than their dads did, but these are incremental moves we’re talking about. And precious few worry that a dad picking up the dry cleaning or making dinner somehow constitutes an attack on “family values”—or that a man who doesn’t want to have kids is somehow defective or unnatural. A man’s minor deviations beyond the confines of his traditional gender role are rarely seen as cause for alarm.

Women are the ones who have changed – and who have fought, every step of the way, for those changes… changes that have, in turn (and slowly) affected the incremental changes in men and (slower still) in the structures of society. Perhaps it’s because our rights remain under attack, because our position still feels tenuous, because we still have such a ways to go, that our reflexive response to trend stories about opting out or real-life trends toward attachment parenting or aprons as fashion statement is that it will undermine feminism. We’re still on shaky ground.

And because it’s shaky, we cling to our positions ferociously. With our newfound freedom to do things any which way, it’s harder to feel that what we’re doing is right. Or even just good enough. And because women today have been raised on the message that we can do anything, we do whatever it is we do with a certain amount of ferocity. The same ambition some might turn on in the boardroom, some will focus onto their children.

And because it’s shaky, there will be those who will insist that the old way was the right way.

The thing is, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The parameters of women’s lives have changed. We have our reproductive rights—and will fight for them no matter what right-winged extremist boogieman appears claiming God and the Founding Fathers wanted women beholden to our uteri. We have access and opportunity and can do all kinds of things with our lives. We can parent—or not parent—as we see fit. And that is a good thing.

The “enough” I worry about is this: when will there be enough change–enough change to the structures, attitudes, finger-pointing, and self-doubt–that “choices,” in all their forms, will be available, realistic, safe, and workable for all women?

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I don’t know about you, but I am unbearably tired of phrases like “aging gracefully.”  Or worse yet:  “Embracing your age.”  Define please, could you? And while you’re at it, please tell me why such phrases are often accompanied by a photo of a woman with white hair.

It seems the last bastion of socially acceptable stereotyping is Age with a capital “A”.  Especially when it comes to women. You’ll have to excuse my attitude, but today I am wearing some serious cranky pants.

I confess.  I am a baby boomer.  Where once we boomers were stereotyped in terms of sex, drugs and rock and roll, today it’s old age. And what riles me up is this:  Rather than being defined by our birthdays, why the hell can’t we just be? Whether I look my age, or younger or older, is immaterial to me.  What matters is the way others treat me, and it’s been my experience that older women begin to lose credibility when they hit middle age — an ugly term if ever their were one.

It’s not our age per se that does us in; it’s the expectation of what a woman of a certain age is and is not, can and cannot do, should and should not look like, that gets us.  Age itself may not matter.  But the way we are pigeonholed certainly does.

The other day, a professor friend told me about a comment she heard in class from one young women who declared that a woman’s life is over at menopause, and that starts at 50.  Do we ever speak of men that way. Ugh, right?

For years,  I have set myself up as guinea pig for my journalism students to practice interview techniques. Back when, I would tell them my age — if they asked — and the response was often a gasp.  At first, I thought it was flattering.  But then I realized.  It was all about the stereotypes. I didn’t conform to their image of what a woman my age was supposed to be like. What, I asked them: should I be sporting polyester and humming show tunes?

What I really wonder is why this is predominantly a women’s issue.  Men grow older, more distinguished.  They run for political office.  But women? With a few exceptions, we exhaust our shelf life.  We’re assumed to be no longer vital.  Relevant.  We become redundant.  Invisible.  Not supposed to care what we see in the mirror.  At least that’s what the media, and society itself, tells us.

Today in class, to test a point, I put my students on the spot:  Let’s take our president, I said. He’ll be 51 this summer.  Do you think of him as middle-aged — or four years away from his AARP card?  Most of them laughed.  Now, I said.  Take a woman that age, maybe your aunt or someone else.  How do you picture her?

For the one or two kids who still didn’t get it, I pushed a little bit further:  Name some women actors Brad Pitt’s age — or older — who still get starring roles.  (Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren don’t count.  They are the exceptions who prove the rule.  And Julia Roberts?  America’s former sweetheart is now playing the evil queen in Snow White.)  Silence.

This week I caught a piece in Salon by a thirty-something writer I happen to like.  The essay was about taking a water aerobics class at her local YMCA with a bunch of “old women”. She thought they’d love her, embrace her, make her feel young.  Instead, they aimed a bunch of jokes in her direction, laughing like the mean girls in junior high.  Cute story, but what got  me was the description of the women:  

My poolies, the ones at my gym, had necks that had long since defied definition. Massive freckled cleavage became neck became chin became face and so on. They wore bathing caps with plastic flowers and swim suits with pointy foam bra cups. Underneath, their hair was teased and thinning in shades of copper and yellow.

And then, the way she categorized them:  old ladies and elderly women.  But never mind. What had gotten the writer’s goat, she realized, was the fact that these feisty chicks didn’t “fall into the role I assigned them, because they were busy being their own people.” Good point, but what I wonder is whether she realized how she had loaded her piece with stereotypes. Which is, after all, the most insidious thing about the damage they do.

But back to this aging business: The topic has fast become a staple of women’s media – by women, for women, about women.  Surely, for example, you’ve noticed an upwelling of articles and broadcast pieces – many of them just a little smug  — about going gray as a way to embrace one’s age.   Now, don’t get me wrong – if you love your gray hair, more power to you.  I’m certainly not going to judge you for refusing to color your hair.  But please, by the same token, don’t judge me for choosing to color mine.

I started coloring my hair when I was in my mid-thirties, when a much older cousin took me aside and said, “Oh, sweetie.  You’re way too young to have so much gray in your bangs.”  I’ve been coloring since.  It’s not to pass for  young.  Or keep my job.  Or, for the love of God, please the patriarchy.  Nope.  I color my fair for the same reason my twenty and thirty something sisters do:  vanity.   I like the way I look, especially with my copper lowlights.

But I digress.  I’ve noticed that a lot of what we read about aging is written by women who aren’t even close to the cut-off line and that the subtext is fear, which seems to be enabled by the messages themselves.  The irony is that the media tell us that younger women are supposed to fear getting older — while their older sisters should put away the women they thought were and just fade to, you know, gray.  It occurs to me: maybe one of the reasons certain milestone birthdays are so scary for younger women is the assumptions they make about the women who have already reached them.

And could that focus on the ticking clock be one reason why, as we found in the research for our book, women agonize over their life choices?

Many smart women have suggested that one way to ditch the stigma is for all of us to claim our age — to show that, no matter how many fingers we are, we are still smart, vital, productive, funny and, what the hell, stylish, too.  I for one would be happy to do it, so long as you promise you won’t frame me in terms of my birthdays.  You know, patronize or marginalize me.  So I’ll do it, pinky swear.

But only if you go first.

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More than likely, you are too.

Give it a try:  n-n-n-n-n-ooooooooooooo.

Can’t say it, can you?  Like me, you are probably over-extended, over-committed and over-booked. Which makes me wonder: Why is it that we can’t give ourselves permission to ever respectfully decline?  And, while we’re at it: why do men have an easier time with the n-word?  Are there, for example, any show tunes about a guy who can’t say no?  Right? Are they the more evolved of the species?  ( I’m sure we’ll find out in the comments section.)

This comes up because, as I write this, I am looking forward to a toxic tomorrow, when I have three major commitments that, had they been on three different days, I would be gladly anticipating.  And, to be sure, each is a case of my, a while ago, saying: Yes, absolutely!  But then, calendars rearranged.  Life intervened.  The calendar went haywire.  And here I am.  Wondering how I will make it through the day.  Or put all those miles on my car.  Could I have declined anywhere along the way?

Of course.  But I did not.  Which is why, as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote– albeit in an entirely different context — I’m in a terrible fix.

This whole issue of saying no came up in class today, when one of my students, talking about the over-extension of today’s college students, talked about an invitation to participate in something (probably spectacular — she’s that kind of kid) where she had just said no. Can’t do it.  And the response from her friends was disbelief.

Part of this is the fact that as women we are raised to please.  It starts early.  When writing our book, we talked to a counselor at a prestigious all-girls high school, who told us that when she talks to many of the girls in her school the main topic of conversation is stress.  They admit that a lot is self-induced, but when she asks them, “Well, do you really need to take six honors courses?” the answer will be “But I want to.” What they really want, she told us, is to please:

“Studies show girls have so many more problems than boys— depression, eating disorders, migraines—because girls will stick with the craziness a lot longer than boys will. Girls are hard-wired to please, which makes the pressure even bigger. They won’t give up, because to do so would be a failure. And they don’t want anybody to feel they’re a failure, because then they’d be letting people down.”

Not sure that need not to let people down ever quite goes away.  (Myself?  See above.)  We are loathe to say no.  (And, as we’ve noted before, damn quick to apologize.)  Is it a question of self-worth?  That we still see ourselves as not worthy? This gets compounded when we get into the real world of work by the fact that we’re so new to the game that, when we get invited to the table, we end up feeling grateful.  Take the case of a woman we met after a speech we gave at a conference not long ago.  She came up to us afterward and told us that the president of her company had called her during the middle of the previous day’s session and offered her a new position, with a new title and a bump in salary.  The call took her by surprise, she said yes, and the call ended.  Bang. But what she said to us a day later was this: shouldn’t she have negotiated her salary?  Wouldn’t a man have done that?

Shouldn’t she have made the big ask?  Probably, yes.

Maybe it’s we haven’t yet learned that it’s okay to be ourselves.  To be true to our very own wants and needs. To be authentic. To ditch what we call the iconic self. To live up to no one’s expectations but our own. And sometimes that means to, well, just say no.

But what the hell do I know.  Here I sit, eating my dinner (burned the crap out of the organic carrots, by the way), finishing this post.  I’d have another glass of wine but, you know, tomorrow is a big day.

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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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When 30 year-old Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke tried to testify in favor of health insurance-covered contraception at a Congressional hearing (and, after being blocked by Rep. Darrell Issa R-CA, then had to issue her extremely articulate testimony via YouTube), Rush Limbaugh had this to say in return:

[She] goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. The johns.

Maureen Dowd – herself a past target of Limbaugh’s name-calling — took him down in the New York Times Sunday Review, point by point, starting with the fact that he implies that birth control is a “welfare entitlement,” when, of course, it’s not: employers and insurance companies would cover contraception, not tax dollars. And

Mother Jones pointed out that Rush, a Viagra fan, might be confusing the little blue pill and birth control, since “when and how much sex you have is unrelated to the amount of birth control you need.”

But let’s assume he wasn’t confusing the two little pills. Let’s assume he was well aware that his “welfare entitlement” remark was factually inaccurate. Let’s assume he knew exactly how wrong he was. No, wait! Let’s assume he really believed he was right – and still, rather than laying out a rational argument — he instead took the desperate-for-attention, cowardly bully’s way out. Slut! Neener neener.

Pretty much every single time we write about feminism on the HuffingtonPost, at least one or two commenters will appear, calling us ugly. Fat. Man-hating. Feminazis. Yet rarely do these haters bother to address the issue at hand, whatever we happened to be writing about on that particular day. That’s because it’s not about the issues. Tossing Pee-Wee Herman-caliber barbs is easy. Ridiculous as they may be, taking them is a little harder. I mean, I don’t think I’m ugly (calling all haters, here’s your chance to disagree!), but that doesn’t really matter. It still stings. And Limbaugh and Internet commenters and schoolyard bullies and others like them count on that: if a woman knows that standing up for, say insurance-covered birth control will have her publicly labeled a slut, she’s probably that much more likely to keep mum (and to continue shelling out for it, out of her own pocket).

It all reminds me of something I wrote about a while back, about a conversation I’d come across between journalists Joan Walsh and Gail Collins, ahead of the release of Collins’ book “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present.”

I was struck by some of what Collins said in the final clip, when Walsh asked her about Billy Jean King, who Collins frames in the book as a real-life feminist hero. Talking about the much-hyped “Battle of the Sexes,” in which King wiped the court with a not-at-the-top-of-his-game Bobby Riggs (who, even when he was at the top of his game, wasn’t all that threatening), Collins said the following:

The importance of it to me was that women who fought for women’s rights in the 60s and 70s did not get hosed down, or attacked by snarling dogs, or thrown in jail; they got laughed at. And humiliation and embarrassment was the great huge club that people used to keep women in line.

How much has really changed?

Some of Rush’s advertisers have dropped off, and President Obama himself gave Fluke a call, telling her that her parents should be proud. The Senate (barely) voted down a bill that would allow insurers and employers to deny contraception coverage based on any “religious or moral” objection. Rush “apologized.” So, that’s progress.

There are those who say Limbaugh’s whole schtick is to be outrageous. It’s about ratings, they argue. So I guess real progress will happen when grown-ups no longer choose to listen to grown men behaving like children, or defend grown men behaving like children on the grounds that it’s “entertaining.”

It’s not entertaining. It’s pathetic. And to those who may disagree, I’d love to hear it. And to those who may disagree but will instead insult me, I say: I know you are, but what am I?

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