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You know the saying:  the best defense is a good offense?  I’m thinking, instead of expending our energy on the war on women, why don’t we wage a war for women?  Right?

I sometimes wonder if we women – roughly half the population and half the workforce too – have been so busy defending ourselves from recent assaults, that we’ve become too distracted, too exhausted, to regain our forward momentum.

After all, the biggest victories for civil rights in our country have been proactive – think LBJ’s work to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or, for that matter, President Obama’s recent pronouncement of support for gay marriage.  Ours is a civil rights issue every bit as important as the fight for equality in any other realm.  But what’s baffling to me is the fact that so many Americans – many of them married to women, the children of women or the parents of women —  find things like equal pay or family-friendly workplaces a subversive idea.  Huh?

I first got to thinking about this after hearing President Obama’s talk at a Women’s Leadership Forum fundraiser back in April, when he reminded the audience, as he often does, that the first act he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. He also reminded the audience that we, as women, still have work to do.

My second nudge was his commencement speech at Barnard, a woman’s school, where he told the new grads:

After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.

But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world — well, that will be up to you. You’ve got to want it. It will not be handed to you. And as someone who wants that future — that better future — for you, and for Malia and Sasha, as somebody who’s had the good fortune of being the husband and the father and the son of some strong, remarkable women, allow me to offer just a few pieces of advice. That’s obligatory. Bear with me.

My first piece of advice is this: Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.

A few minutes later, he added this:

You need to do this not just for yourself but for those who don’t yet enjoy the choices that you’ve had, the choices you will have. And one reason many workplaces still have outdated policies is because women only account for 3 percent of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. One reason we’re actually refighting long-settled battles over women’s rights is because women occupy fewer than one in five seats in Congress.

Washington Post writer Dana Milbank calls Obama the first female president.   Like it.

Some folks suggest that when our president comes out in defense of women’s rights, he’s simply trolling for votes.  I could care less.  Because what I see is that, for whatever reason, he is putting women’s rights front and center:  He’s issuing a rallying cry, one we can get behind. With plans, actions, proposals of our own. Which is, after all, where change comes from.

When you think about where we stand when it comes to equal pay (still 77 cents to a man’s buck, thank you.  Even less, as we found when we were doing the reporting for Undecided, for women of color), our representation – or lack of same — in government or the C-suites, or our lack of public policy or workplace structures to accommodate families, well, I think it’s downright silly. No, not just silly.  Insane.  Especially when you consider that women now make up the majority of college graduates, and yet, we’re still lacking in rights and representation.

Let’s take the Equal Rights Amendment, for example.  Have you heard of it?  Probably not.  Because guess what:  it was passed in the Senate and the House back in 1972, but to this day has not been ratified because three states apparently found it too, um, radical.  It was reintroduced in 1982 and every year since.  It still has not been ratified.  But before you judge, let’s look at what it really says:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.                           
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Back to my war for women.  Can’t you just hear what’s coming next?  We girls are just a bunch of angry feminists.  We’re out to destroy the traditional family.  And the big one:  man haters.

Even in 2012, there are still those who equate advocacy for women with hatred toward men, as if we’re all fighting for the same piece of the pie. I have had a number of female students, in fact, tell me that they are reluctant to come out as feminists for fear of the reaction — but that when they do, they feel compelled to also mention that they indeed have boyfriends. (Just as I feel compelled to tell you now that I have been married to the same man for decades and that we happily raised two daughters.)

Anyway, we could spend our energy defending ourselves — and the hundreds of thousands of other women who are openly or secretly feminist.  But that would take our time away from the work we still have to do.  Which, when you think of it, has been one of the most insidious effects of the Republicans’ so-called war on women.

Instead of keeping us busy in the kitchen, they’ve kept us busy playing defense.

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Yes, we know. That old yellow wood is the time-worn commencement cliche — not to mention perhaps the first crystallization of the choice conundrum that plagues us all.

But in her 2009 commencement address, Barnard grad Sarah Besnoff takes that old metaphor and peppers it with generous dashes of insight– and hope — for a generation of Undecideds.

And that makes all the difference.

Listen for the resonance. She starts by telling the audience that when she was younger, “.. my mom would tell me, ‘When I grow up, I want to be Sarah Besnoff.'” At first, she didn’t get it.

As a child, I would dismiss this statement as something my mom told me to make me laugh. As a teenager, I thought she said it just to empower me. Now, I understand that it was more than that; it was a reminder that I have been given opportunities that she never had. The love and support of my mother and my father, and their parents before them, have given me more chances for high achievement and greater access to places and people than they ever had…

Later, talking abut the challenges that confront the typical Barnard student, she defines what she calls the “culture of choice.”

The hardest challenge, though, was always how to choose what to do: so many interesting classes to take, too many internships, every student organization imaginable. The challenge of too many options is also one that plagues us upon graduation: grad schools, non-profit or private sector jobs, eventually the choice of raising a family. It is this culture of choice that is our generation’s unique opportunity, a blessing that our mothers were not given in equal measure.

Did you hear it? Therein lies the difference between two generations of women, mothers and daughters, and, for that matter, between men and women: the reason that, for so many of us, deciding what to do with our lives is a lot more fraught than picking a path in a yellow wood. The remedy, Besnoff suggests, is shared experience and a sense of sisterhood:

So when two roads diverge in a yellow wood and I’m sorry I can’t travel both – I’m not concerned. I know my Barnard sister who chooses to take the other road will call me and tell me what she saw, who to avoid, where to turn and what lies at the end. Her distinct path will not be divergent from mine, rather it will add to the map of our joint experience. She will empower me with knowledge should I ever want to take that path too. She will share her time on that road with me should I never be able to travel it myself. Our sisterhood in this culture of choice allows us all to become trailblazers without fear of the roads not traveled.

And with this sisterhood of trailblazers, we are uniquely positioned to take on the continuing inequalities that women face in our society. We can each forge new paths to equality, calling our sisters along the way to find unexpected intersections. We can be pioneers as we reassert a gender consciousness within our generation. This is the Barnard sisterhood – supportive, collaborative, competitive sure, but conducive to our collective achievement. We need to create this Barnard sisterhood with all women and male allies, so that we can turn assumed equality into actual parity. We stand here today with a woman who put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. Well, we, the Barnard College Class of 2009, have been given the opportunity to break the damn thing.

Oh, about those 18 million cracks? Did I mention that she shared the stage with Anna Quindlen and Hillary Clinton?

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