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Posts Tagged ‘Meghan Daum’

Last week, I attended an alumni/student networking event at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. The event consisted of about 50 working professionals (I was in this camp), and 100 soon-to-be-grads, sniffing around for some intel on what the “real world” might have in store. The kids (umm – ouch — you know you’re getting older when you start referring to 20-ish-year-olds as “kids”) had been given bios on all us pros, and we were wearing nametags, so there was nowhere to hide. Many of them had seen the title of my book, and wanted my advice. On the small matter of what to do with their lives. Gulp.

(And, let it be said: these are not the lost souls – the organizers maxed the event out, early, at 100 students, so these were the sorts of students who’d actually jumped on the chance to attend a “networking event,” something which, to be perfectly honest, would never have occurred to me while I was in college. Of course, I majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology, so career prospects weren’t exactly my primary motivators.)

Anyway. They wanted to know what to do, how to reach their goals. (I want to be a political speech writer! An oncologist! A professor! Or the–judging by body language alone–shameful: I don’t know what to do with my life! But I’ve done this, this, and this already, so whatever I do has to be good.) Big dreams!  Huge ambitions! And they all seemed a bit like deer in the headlights. A feeling which, I told them, I remember exactly. (College graduation day: shudder. Nowhere as fun as its cracked up to be.) But, I said, what I’ve learned in my own life, and what the research we did for the book proves is this: don’t sweat it. You will have many (many!) jobs in your professional life. You will move. You will have different friends, different titles. You’ll play different roles. The parameters of your “family” will shift. Your priorities will shift.

They looked at me with expressions I can only describe as some mixture of relief and something akin to the face you’d make had I told you to become a mermaid.

But, I get it. Even now, with more job titles than I know what to do with (author, speaker, writer, coach, editor), I understand that ambition. Because I am ambitious. Extremely so. I often describe it as just a part of who I am – as fundamental to me as the fact that I do not like Chinese food, that I am a total grouch if I have no exercise in the morning, and that I’d rather spend a Sunday on the couch reading the paper than doing nearly anything else.  And I’m cool with that.

But this ambition thing. It’s tricky. Difficult to parse how much is fundamental to me, and how much is some sort of weird internalization of the cultural messaging that swirls around all of us, so thick as to be the very air we breathe. The water we swim in.

I got to thinking about it, more than usual, when I read Meghan Daum’s piece about the (most) recent Mommy War flare-up, over Hilary Rosen’s words about Ann Romney:

A lot of this, of course, is the usual bluster of an election season, the tempests that get brewed up in campaign teapots, only to subside as quickly as they erupted. But this latest storm points not only to Americans’ seemingly endless appetite for flimsy controversy but to the incredible sensitivity we have around the issue of work.

To put it bluntly, we’re obsessed with work — with who’s doing it and not doing it, with how many hours are being spent at it and how much money is being paid for it. And we’re not just obsessed in the sense that we rely on work to survive (and, these days, are suffering for lack of it). We’re obsessed with work because our identities are defined by it. We work, therefore we are.

Case in point: the way the formerly quotidian institution known as “parenthood” has lately seen its job description ratcheted up to include not just age-old duties like the feeding, clothing and chauffeuring of children but, in some circles, a downright competitive approach to co-sleeping, organic food shopping, baby sign-language teaching, protracted breast-feeding and sometimes even home schooling. With our self-worth so intrinsically connected to our professional status, we’ve extended the values of corporate ladder climbing on to family life. And some mothers, in the process of taking charge of the home front — or sometimes letting their children take charge — have imposed a greater tyranny on themselves than their office supervisors ever did.

Strikes a cord, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just a tic of human beings: we have to be able to define ourselves. A job is convenient for this purpose. So is a role. As we’ve often written, where once women defined themselves strictly in terms of their relationships to others (daughter, sister, wife, mother), now we define ourselves in terms of our work. And, hey – work’s (relatively) new to us, and it’s fun! And if what we do with our time–our work–is taking care of others, goddamnit, we’re gonna do it perfectly. If we can prove that we’re doing something well–or even if we just have the title to imply that we are–then we matter. We’re worthwhile.

And that’s all fine, to a certain extent: there’s value in doing good work, and there’s value in being a good fill-in-the-blank to someone else. But we are not our roles. And we are not our resumes. And if that leaves you wondering what’s left, well, you’re certainly not alone.

But really: wouldn’t it be more fun if we could somehow loosen the grip of the grand title, the grand role, the grand image, and just be? To try things out, and then if things don’t go as planned, to simply change course, and see what’s around the next bend? To decide that what matters is not what we achieve or how perfectly we achieve it, but that we’ve allowed ourselves to be who we are, and gotten to like her?

Seems to me, that’s a goal worthy of some of my own ambition. And hey, if it doesn’t work out, there’s always grad school.

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Guess who’s calling herself a feminist? I’ll give you a hint: she doesn’t read much but cooks a mean moose chili, and while she isn’t a big fan of hopey changey stuff, she has been known to engage in such enlightened chants as “Drill, baby, drill.” (Though she’s been conspicuously quiet on that subject as of late.) Oh, and she’s super-mavericky, too.

Yeah, her. Sarah Palin’s taken to calling herself a feminist (never mind the fact that, during the 2008 Presidential campaign she told Katie Couric that, no, she was not a feminist)–and many other self-described feminists are none too thrilled about it.

And, frankly, I’m terrifically torn. Yes, a part of me believes that a part of the reason young women are so reluctant to call themselves feminists is because, at times, the movement has seemed been exclusionary. Elitist. Historically, such charges aren’t entirely unfounded. I have even argued that, to my mind, Feminism can be boiled down to the simple idea that women are people.

So why aren’t I jumping up and down, welcoming a woman from the other side of the aisle to the party? Well, just being a woman isn’t enough. And being a woman who’s championed causes antithetical to the interests of women as a whole certainly seems like an adequate deal-breaker, doesn’t it?

The ultimate irony may be in the event at which Palin dropped the F-bomb (upwards of ten times) itself: It was a speech given to the Susan B. Anthony list, an anti-choice group. During the speech, she said the suffragettes were the real feminists (disregarding all that’s come since–you know, like the women who fought to pry open the doors through which Palin walked to get where she is today)–and that they were pro-life. She went on to disparage pro-choice feminists, suggesting that, by championing a woman’s right to choose, they’re really saying they just don’t believe women can handle motherhood and work, and

send this message, that ‘Nope, you’re not capable of doing both. You can’t give your child life and still pursue career and education. You’re not strong enough; you’re not capable.’ So it’s very hypocritical.

Implicit in such a statement is, of course, the idea that that woman who’s capable of doing both will have the benefit of enough support from the social structures around her to make it possible to do both–an argument that’s tough to make, given, you know, the ERA that was never passed, the fact that we’re still underpaid and underrepresented, not to mention the issues of inadequate, unaffordable child care and–until recently–health care (reform of which Palin feverishly campaigned against).

But back to Palin and her F-bombs. Jessica Valenti, who made a compelling argument that Palin’s feminism is not feminism at all, but rather disingenuous pandering for women’s votes come midterm time, lays it out thus:

A related strategy for Palin and fellow conservatives is to paint actual feminists as condescending hypocrites who simply don’t believe in young women… Palin’s “pro-woman sisterhood,” however, “is telling these young women that they’re strong enough and smart enough, they are capable to be able to handle an unintended pregnancy and still be able to… handle that [and] give that child life.” (Unless of course, these young women were unlucky enough to live in Alaska when then-Gov. Palin cut funding for an Anchorage shelter for teenage moms.)

Ahem, who you callin a hypocrite, Sarah?

But then, just when you’re ready to banish her from the kingdom forever, there’s this, from Meghan Daum at the L.A. Times.

The word in question, of course, is “feminist.” It may be the most polarizing label on the sociopolitical stage (it makes “environmentalist” or even “gay-rights advocate” seem downright banal), but Palin seems to have stopped dancing around it and finally claimed it as her partner. Granted, this is a conditional relationship; there’s a qualifier here as big as Alaska…

Now, there are a lot of ways in which [Palin's] logic is contorted, not least of all the suggestion that supporting the right to choose represents a no-confidence vote for the idea of mothers leading fulfilling professional and personal lives. But putting that aside, I feel a duty (a feminist duty, in fact) to say this about Palin’s declaration: If she has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she’s entitled to be accepted as one.

Now, while a part of me agrees with Daum’s perspective, another part of me agrees with the in-your-face take offered by Kate Harding, who wrote on Jezebel that:

The problem is, words mean things. I could start calling myself a red meat conservative, or campaign for those of us who are against the death penalty to “reclaim” the term “pro-life,” but at some point, the relationship between your beliefs and your choice of words either passes the sniff test or it doesn’t. And someone who actively seeks to restrict women’s freedom calling herself a feminist is, not to put too fine a point on it, a liar. There’s a difference between a big tent and no boundaries whatsoever; if Palin’s “entitled to be accepted” as a feminist just because she says she’s one, then the word is completely meaningless–as opposed to merely vague and controversial. And I might just start calling myself a “right-winger” because I’m right-handed, or a “fundamentalist” because I believe everyone deserves a solid primary education, or a “birther” because I once hosted a baby shower.

Is she or isn’t she?? More troubling that all of this, to me, though, is this: it seems that what’s really happening here is that feminism is again being reduced to an issue of reproductive rights. Don’t get me wrong: I happen to believe a woman’s right to choose is critically, critically important–and while I find it nothing short of ludicrous to call an anti-choice argument “feminist,” something (else) about this entire debate rubs me wrong (and not just the high-school-clique-ish nature of the whole does she belong or doesn’t she question). I just think that every time we frame feminism as about abortion rights and nothing more, we take the focus off of what it’s really all about. And that is, of course, that women are people–people who deserve equal access, representation, freedom, pay, and support from all aspects of the social structures that circumscribe their lives. And while feminism may indeed be nothing more than the radical notion that women are people, a feminist is someone who puts her money (or her votes) where her rhetoric is. So, Sarah, call yourself whatever you want. But talk is cheap–and your record speaks for itself.


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