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Posts Tagged ‘Elena Kagan’

Weren’t we all?

I came across that line Wednesday in a piece by Maureen Dowd, who quoted Michelle Obama as saying that her husband had spent so much time alone growing up that it was as if he had been raised by wolves.

Love that phrase, don’t you?

Think about it and you realize that, in a twisted kind of way, we’ve all been raised by wolves. As women in this new millennium, most of us are going it alone right now, figuring out how to navigate new and unfamiliar turf, without really knowing the rules once we leave the woods.

Growing pains? You bet. And you see them everywhere you look, in a variety of flavors. Here’s just a taste. In a piece in The Nation on the upcoming confirmation of Elena Kagan, Patricia J. Williams predicts that Kagan’s success as a lawyer will be characterized as “unwomanly” because, of course, success in such fields is equated with testosterone. She reminds us both how far we’ve come — and how far we’ve yet to go, noting that gender stereotyping is sometimes embedded in the language:

Forty years after the birth of modern feminism, we are still not able to think about women who attain certain kinds of professional success as normatively gendered. Officially, the English language does not have gendered nouns. Yet it seems that we do invest certain words with gendered exclusivity—nurse, fireman, CEO, lawyer—if only as a matter of general parlance. There’s a story that used to be ubiquitous about thirty years ago: a father rushes his son to the hospital after a bicycle accident. The boy is whisked into Emergency and ends up on the operating table. The surgeon looks down at the boy and gasps, “Oh, my God! This is my son!” The story would end with the question, “How is that possible?” Much puzzlement would ensue until the “Aha!” moment: the surgeon was the boy’s mother. In that era, the likelihood of a surgeon being female was so negligible that divining the answer became a kind of “test” of radical feminist sensibility.

Then there’s this, Vivia Chen’s piece from Legalweek.com that reminds us how much of our lives are caught up in trying to navigate that odious term called work-life balance. She reports on an interview with Harvard Law School grad Angie Kim whose sprint up the corporate ladder took a five year detour when her second child became sick with an undiagnosed illness. A few months back, Kim did some research and found that the majority of the women in her law school class had left the fast track. But the interesting thing (another sign of shifting terrain?) is what she told Chen:

“The ‘mommy track’ was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings. But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles. A senior partner who brought many clients to her law firm, for example, now works 15 to 40 hours per week, mainly out of her home and on her own schedule… The author of a best-selling book on negotiations launched her own conflict resolution firm with about 15 lawyer and consultants. She works from home during school hours and after bedtime and takes July and August off.”

Kim argues that “the line between the fast track and the mommy track is blurring,” and that flexibility “is infiltrating more and more jobs and replacing traditional work values – long hours, face time – as the new workplace ideal.”

Positive signs? Could be, especially when you consider that as our workplace numbers rise — and with it our economic clout — we girls are in a better position to push for changes that work for us. Let’s look at Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic entitled “The End of Men.

What would a society in which women are on top look like? We already have an inkling. This is the first time that the cohort of Americans ages 30 to 44 has more college-educated women than college-educated men, and the effects are upsetting the traditional Cleaver-family dynamics. In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Now the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in 10 mothers—many of them single mothers—are the primary breadwinners in their families. The whole question of whether mothers should work is moot, argues Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “because they just do. This idealized family—he works, she stays home—hardly exists anymore.”

The terms of marriage have changed radically since 1970. Typically, women’s income has been the main factor in determining whether a family moves up the class ladder or stays stagnant. And increasing numbers of women—unable to find men with a similar income and education—are forgoing marriage altogether. In 1970, 84 percent of women ages 30 to 44 were married; now 60 percent are. In 2007, among American women without a high-school diploma, 43 percent were married. And yet, for all the hand-wringing over the lonely spinster, the real loser in society—the only one to have made just slight financial gains since the 1970s—is the single man, whether poor or rich, college-educated or not. Hens rejoice; it’s the bachelor party that’s over.

Rosin doesn’t mention things like the wage gap or pervasive gender stereotyping (see above) that effectively quashes our numbers right now. But she does make an important point: if higher education is the “gateway to economic success” as well as a prereq for life in the middle class, clearly women in the not-too-distant future are going to be calling their own shots.

What those shots might be, however, is what’s so hard to figure out. In “Doing Grown-up Wrong” on siren.com, Allison Hantschel asks “what we do when we don’t have what the Jonese have and worse, don’t even want it?” What she knows she doesn’t want: a big house in the country, a bunch of kids, a climb up the corporate ladder. What she does want? That, she doesn’t quite get.

Which brings us back to the wolves. We’ve been raised in one world and suddenly we find ourselves in another, roadmap not included. What now? Insert howl here.

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Throughout the course of a woman’s life, a question that never ceases to be relevant is the one so many like to say isn’t–or shouldn’t be–relevant at all: What should I wear?

But the fact is, it is. Clothes, of course, do more than keep us warm and safe from indecent exposure citations: they are a form of self-expression–and they say something to the world about who we are. Or who we want to be perceived to be. Chuck Taylors or Jimmy Choos? Superficial, yes–but your choice likely speaks to much more than your preference in footwear. And even if it means nothing to you, well, the world is waiting to foist judgments based on little more. More so for women.

In a piece in yesterday’s Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer takes on the being judged side of the equation:

What do Elena Kagan and Sarah Palin have in common? They each offer complementary cautionary tales about the continuing appeal of an ersatz, “Sex in [sic] the City” feminism that rewards beauty and punishes plainness with all the subtlety and compassion of a Playboy centerfold. Kagan’s appearance and fashion sense are mocked or savaged, especially but not exclusively by pundits on the right, following a familiar script. Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano endured similar hazings. Sarah Palin, to say the least, did not.

Kaminer goes on to make the case that the judgments–both ways (that Palin was christened “Caribou Barbie” before she ever proved herself as informed as a plastic toy; that Kagan’s sexuality is a subject of speculation in a way it wouldn’t be if she looked like Sarah Palin or Kim Cattrall)–are yet another way women are thrown under the microscope that men are not. And obviously, she has a point.

Interestingly, before I saw the Atlantic piece, I came across a piece by Courney E. Martin, ahead of the upcoming anthology, “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists,” she’s putting together with J. Courtney Sullivan, which features a collection of stories from women describing the moment that feminism clicked for them. And in Martin’s Aha moment, fishnet stockings played a starring role.

Barnard College proved to be a place where just about everyone else was in the same state of confusion I was. We were all whip-smart, quirky, and intense, but none of us wanted to call ourselves feminist. It’s comical to think of it now. Here we were, dorms full of spitfire girls who had chosen an all-women’s college, and we were still reluctant to don the label. We were the low-hanging fruit, and feminism just hadn’t managed to pluck us.

That changed for me the day that Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner showed up on the third floor of Barnard Hall to give a talk on their new book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Amy was plucky and compact, smart without an ounce of pretension, a no-nonsense beauty. Jennifer was her opposite–long and sinewy, bright blong, and yes, wearing fishnet stockings. They were besties, taking over the world with totally fresh feminist analysis. This wasn’t the swishy-skirt feminism that my mom had manifested at her once-a-month women’s groups. This was contemporary, witty, brash, even a little sexy. This was who I wanted to be.

Consider her plucked.

In fact, both Kaminer and Martin make the point that fashion is a way in which we express our identification with certain groups. It actually reminds me of a story. Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?

Here’s a little more from Martin on that front:

I’ve experienced it myself. After speaking on college campuses, I consistently get emails from young women confessing that they had no idea that young feminists even existed, much less “cool” ones like me. I find myself–otherwise low-maintenance and notoriously uninterested in contemporary fashion–thinking very deliberately about what I wear to these events. Sometimes the irony astounds me: I don’t dress up for business meetings, but I do dress up for 18 year-old girls who might be converted to feminism by my knee-high boots or my trendy dress.

Both Kaminer and Martin make good points. And I think that what they’re saying cuts both ways. It shouldn’t matter if we like to show a little cleavage or opt to forgo shaving our legs. If we dress up or dress down. We shouldn’t have to worry about being judged on the basis of our appearance–or use our sartorial wiles to gain acceptance–or to persuade others to our cause. And yet.

Here’s a bit more from Kaminer:

Years ago, I watched an array of law students lingering in a hotel lobby, waiting to be interviewed by visiting firms. The men were completely, conventionally covered by their suits; the women seemed half naked by comparison, in fitted jackets, often showing a little cleavage, and above the knee, or shorter, skirts. Maybe they hoped to benefit from these reveals, but I suspect they were subtly disadvantaged by them. The men were free to focus on their interviews; at least some women were likely to be distracted by concerns about their looks and the need to sit and display themselves appropriately. How much skin is just enough? Stilettos, kitten heels, or flats? Hollywood or D.C.? These are questions men never have to ask. Will they ever cease to matter to women?

I don’t know–and yes, that men never have to ask such questions is unfair. But I think those questions matter a little less when you dress for yourself. Because when you’re dressing for no one but yourself, you’re at your most comfortable–and when you’re at your most comfortable, you’re at your most confident. And an ugly pantsuit or peek of cleavage kind of fades into the background in the face of a truly confident woman. Martin speaks my language, though–and I love that it’s become passe to assume a feminist wouldn’t be caught dead in heels. Not least because I love me my high heels–and I don’t, in any way, consider it a contradiction to call myself a feminist while rocking an artificial five inches. On the other hand, in my closet, both Chuck and Choo are represented–and they’re equally worn.

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Men are single. Women, on the other hand, are unmarried. And that, ladies, is how language screws us once again

All of which came to light Wednesday via Maureen Dowd, who used the current flap about the sexuality of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan to note how quickly women go from “single” — read: sexy, fun and available — to “unmarried,” a fate somewhat akin to that of Mary in “A Wonderful Life” had George Bailey never been born. (That’s her, up in the corner. Note the glasses.)

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock this past week, it’s been suggested that Kagan, 50 and never married, must then be a lesbian. The WSJ even went so far as to use a page one photo of her playing softball, wink wink. All of which prompted Kagan’s friends, the White House, and Kagan herself to assert that she is straight.

At which point, she became unmarried. As in, poor thing. Now, take a man in similar circumstances. He, of course, would still be single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He doesn’t even have to be remotely attractive — Henry Kissinger, anyone? — for the girls to come flocking. But without addressing the double standard because, you know, it makes us too angry, let’s go straight to Dowd, who is herself, by the way, single:

When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?

As my friend Carol Lee, a Politico reporter, observes: “It seems like a cruel distinction and terrifying crossover.”

Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.

Men, generally more favored by nature as they age, can be single at all ages. But often, for women, once you’re 40 or 50, or simply beyond childbearing age, you’re no longer single. You’re unmarried — meaning it isn’t your choice to be alone. There are post-50 exceptions. Consider celebrity examples: Samantha in “Sex and the City,” Dana Delany, Susan Sarandon and Madonna are seen as sexily single.

But if you have a bit of a weight problem, a bad haircut, a schlumpy wardrobe, the assumption is that you’re undesirable, unwanted — and unmarried.

All of which leads to the current Kagan narrative, writes Dowd:

Kagan has told a friend in the West Wing that she is not gay, just lonely. Even so, that doesn’t mean her sherpas in the White House, in their frantic drive to dismiss the gay rumors, should be spinning a narrative around that most hoary of stereotypes: a smart, ambitious woman who threw herself into her work, couldn’t find a guy, threw up her hands, and threw herself further into her work — and in the process went from single to unmarried.

It’s inexplicable, given that this should be Kagan’s hour of triumph as potentially only the fourth woman ever to serve on the highest court.

Here we go again with the pre-feminist junk: We women can be smart, we can be accomplished, we can be ambitious. But we can’t be all three — and married, too. After all, what man wants a woman who sports a better title, matches him paycheck for paycheck, and can beat him at chess?

And have a family? Fuhgeddabout it.

I can’t help thinking back to the mid-80s when a media misinterpretation of a combined Harvard-Yale study led to headlines and magazine cover stories that proclaimed that unmarried women who had reached the age of 40 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever find a mate. True story. The media reports, I mean. The study’s findings, at least the way they were reported? Not so much. In fact, Newsweek did a mea culpa twenty years later — another cover story that found that many of those single women the magazine had profiled back in the day not only had not been killed by terrorists — fancy that — but indeed had found their soulmates. Even raised families.

And yet, the idea lingers. Or continues to reignite: If women are too smart, if they are are too ambitious, if they let themselves get too old, they better watch out. They’ll go from single to unmarried in a heartbeat. And we all know what that means. Fun’s over, girls. Time to start raising kittycats.

The other subtext of this Kagan stuff, of course, is this: you can do anything, even sit on the Supreme Court, but really, what does it matter if you don’t have a guy?

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