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Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

The Feminine Mystique is 50 years old; do you know where your equality is?

Here’s a hint: if you’re a woman living in America, it’s still pretty far out of reach. Because for as far as women have come in the ol’ US of A, the fact is that the state of affairs here–compared to most of the rest of the world, is pretty freaking abysmal. As Stephanie Coontz wrote in an op-ed entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled” in Sunday’s NYT,

Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s work or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total workforce was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers should be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the FMLA turned out to be the inadequate end.

Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.

As I likely do not need to tell you, the number of hours worked expected from the average worker during the average workweek has ticked steadily up in recent years, making the idea of two full-time employees trying to raise a child while maintaining each of their careers near impossible.  So someone steps down. Men are generally paid more than women–so guess which one tends to do the stepping down? And in fact, the more hours a man works, the more likely it is his female partner will quit her job. (And interestingly, married dads whose wives don’t work full time get paid more. Grrr.)

I have an extremely talented, very driven friend who works in New York, in a highly competitive, fast-evolving field. She is passionate about her work, and fiercely devoted to keeping her skills current. Her husband makes more money than her, and his job offers benefits. They’re thinking of having a baby. Her current boss won’t pay for leave–and, she’s been feeling pretty stagnant in her position. Up until recently, she’d been looking for a new job. But now, she’s thinking, well, maybe I’ll just take some time off when we have the baby. Child care is so expensive anyway. It’ll put her at a disadvantage later, but she doesn’t see much of a choice. She’s stopped looking for something new–despite the fact that she has not, as of yet, stopped taking the pill.

Sheryl Sandberg would call this a classic case of “leaning out”–taking oneself out of the game before it’s necessary in anticipation of work-life issues–and suggest that this friend of mine rethink her strategy, “lean in” instead. Even this friend of mine looks at is as a personal choice. But the thing is, in cases like this, the personal is, in fact, political.

Going back to Coontz’s piece:

The sociologist Pamela Stone studied a group of mothers who had made these decisions. Typically, she found, they phrased their decision in terms of a preference. But when they explained their ‘decision-making process,’ it became clear that most had made the ‘choice’ to quit work only as a last resort–when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns. Under those conditions, Professor Stone notes, what was really a workplace problem for families became a private problem for women.

Every time we buy into that idea — that what’s going on with us has only to do with us — the movement stalls just a little bit more. It’s been fifty years since The Feminine Mystique… and twenty since the Family and Medical Leave Act. In order for things to change, we have to realize that what we are up against is bigger than the particular circumstances of our own lives.

Just as the miserable, Valium-popping suburban wives of Friedan’s day might have looked around at their gleaming linoleum and state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners and said, but I chose this, we too can look at everything as a personal choice. Or we can step back, take a broader look, and realize that while, yes, perhaps we did “lean out”–taking a lesser job in a lesser place because our husband made the big bucks, or taking some time off work with the baby because it “made more sense” even though, in an ideal world, we’d like to work, too–a huge, invisible (and not so invisible) part of why we “decided” to lean out is systemic. It’s cultural and it’s structural and it’s policy-determined and it is, in fact, political.

The graphic that ran with Coontz’s story is a color-coded world map that shows which countries have paid maternity leave, by weeks provided. Those in the “none” category included Palau, Papau New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, Tonga, Suriname, and the United States. Aren’t we better than this?

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Report Card_6Something has been nagging at me ever since I read Christina Hoff Sommers’ Opinionator piece in Sunday’s New York Times. Did you catch it? It’s yet another essay lamenting the disconnect between today’s school system and, well, the nature of boys.

Her piece, which links declining male achievement with grade school culture, is pegged to a new study that found that, despite the fact that boys do just as well as girls on standardized tests, they are less likely to “get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college.”

 No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.

Can we just stop with the “woe be the boys” bullshit?  Arrgh.

Before I go on, let me assert my bias straight up.  I myself am a girl.  My two children are girls.  All our pets, save one, have been female.  One of my daughters and I wrote a whole book about, and for, women.  And if you check the first paragraph of this post, you might surmise — correctly, in fact — that while most of you, my husband included, were watching the Super Bowl, I was snuggled up on the couch reading the newspaper.  How girl can you get?

And so, yes, I may well be looking at this issue through pink-colored glasses, but what rankles me is the timing of all this tedious “end of men” business. I have no problem with Sommers’ point that boys struggle with school, more so than girls, because classrooms are set up to favor kids who can sit still, do as they’re told, and work independently, skills that girls tend to develop before boys do.  In fact, I agree completely.

But hasn’t that always been the case? What creeps me out is my suspicion that the real reason we are so worried about boys of late is the fact that when it comes to college or grad school or scoring the job with the corner office, girls have started to catch up.  Did we ever worry about grade school culture when, not that long ago, the majority of college grads were male?  No need to answer.

I think back to my grade school days at a Catholic school in San Francisco taught by no-nonsense nuns who would put the fear of God into God himself.  I still remember the names of the class trouble-makers who were sent regularly to the principal’s office for mouthing off, who were stuck on the bench at recess, who routinely flunked their spelling tests and, by seventh or eighth grade, were the first to smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Boys, every one. The girls, for the most part, got the gold stars and rarely got in trouble for anything more serious than rolling up their plaid skirts.

And yet, a few years down the line, most of those naughty little boys graduated from college, grad school even, and grew up to be highly successful men, pulling down the big bucks.  As for the good little girls?  Either married to them or working for them.

My point being, we had no problem with the ways in which schools privileged girls back in the days when we knew that, sooner or later, the boys would grow up to assume their rightful place.  But now that girls have begun to hold their own, we wring our hands and kvetch about leveling the playing field.

As if anticipating my riff, Sommers ends her piece this way:

I can sympathize with those who roll their eyes at the relatively recent alarm over boys’ achievement. Where was the indignation when men dominated higher education, decade after decade? Isn’t it time for women and girls to enjoy the advantages? The impulse is understandable but misguided. I became a feminist in the 1970s because I did not appreciate male chauvinism. I still don’t. But the proper corrective to chauvinism is not to reverse it and practice it against males, but rather basic fairness. And fairness today requires us to address the serious educational deficits of boys and young men. The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men.

I couldn’t agree more: The rise of women does not at all require the fall of men.  Where I part company with Sommers, and the rest of the end-of-men contingent, is with the  implication that the two are even related.

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It’s easy to be appalled by things that happen elsewhere: the brutal, horrifying rape of the 23 year-old Indian student, so violent that she died of her injuries. Malala Yousufzai, the 15 year-old Pakistani schoolgirl/activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban. It’s easy to feel a sort of removed pity in the face of such tragedies. But what we should feel is urgency, and responsibility.

And not just because gender violence happens here, too. In Steubenville, Ohio, an equally despicable incident happened last August, when an unconscious 16 year-old girl was carried from party to party, and raped over and over again.

It would be hard to carry out such acts on someone you saw as human, equal and valuable. It would be hard to carry out such acts if such acts were (loudly) understood to be completely unacceptable.

Reading Sunday’s New York Times, I was struck by two pieces: Nicholas D. Kristof’s excellent “Is Delhi So Different From Steubenville?,” and Maureen Dowd’s article about the lack of women appointed to top spots by President Obama so far. When it comes to policy and representation, is the U.S. doing as well as it could? Hardly.

As Kristof writes,

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done a superb job trying to put these issues on the global agenda, and I hope President Obama and Senator John Kerry will continue her efforts. But Congress has been pathetic. Not only did it fail to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but it has also stalled on the global version, the International Violence Against Women Act, which would name and shame foreign countries that tolerate gender violence.

Congress even failed to renew the landmark legislation against human trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The obstacles were different in each case, but involved political polarization and paralysis. Can members of Congress not muster a stand on modern slavery?

(Hmm. I now understand better the results of a new survey from Public Policy Polling showing that Congress, with 9 percent approval, is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, lice or Genghis Khan.)

We can’t let Congress off the hook when it comes to these policies. According to Politifact, “On Dec. 11, 2012, U.S. Representative Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and 119 other members of Congress signed a letter calling on House leaders to hold a vote on re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act.” That vote never happened.

But there’s more than policy to consider. As Dowd writes, citing New York Magazine, apparently Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has a better record of appointing top women than Obama. Here’s a bit more from her:

‘We don’t have to order up some binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women’ to excel in all fields, the president said on the trail, vowing to unfurl the future for ‘our daughters.’

It may be because the president knows what a matriarchal world he himself lives in that he assumes we understand that the most trusted people in his life have been female–his wife, his daughters, his mother, his grandmother, his mother-in-law, his closest aide, Valerie.

But this isn’t about how he feels, or what his comfort zone is, or who’s in his line of sight. It’s about what he projects to the world–not to mention to his own daughters.

What’s the connection, though, between getting women into top spots, and gender violence throughout the world?

It’s not just that women in such positions are more likely to give voice to the global issues often sidelined as “women’s issues.” It’s not just the inherent value in diversity, in having a broad range of voices and perspectives involved in the decision-making process. It not just “the optics”–the fact that seeing women standing next to the President might inspire a young girl to aim high, or subtly nudge the consciousness of those who see her there in the direction of expecting to see women in top spots. It’s all of it, and more. Consider this, from Kristof’s piece:

Skeptics fret that sexual violence is ingrained into us, making the problem hopeless. But just look at modern American history, for the rising status of women has led to substantial drops in rates of reported rape and domestic violence. Few people realize it, but Justice Department statistics suggest that the incidence of rape has fallen by three-quarters over the last four decades.

Likewise, the rate at which American women are assaulted by their domestic partners has fallen by more than half in the last two decades. That reflects a revolution in attitudes. Steven Pinker, in his book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature,’ notes that only half of Americans polled in 1987 said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick; a decade later, 86 percent said it was always wrong.

Will having more women in high-level positions eliminate all gender violence? No. But the correlation between the “rising status of women” and drops in rates of rape and domestic violence is not coincidence. There’s a link to seeing women in power–and empowered–and seeing them as equals. And when we see others as equals, we tend to treat them that way. Will policies like the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act eliminate all gender violence? No. But it will make crimes more easily prosecutable. All of it matters; every bit counts. It’s tragic that here, and all over the world, there are those who see women as targets. We should be doing all we can to change that.

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screen-shot-2012-12-15-at-7-07-49-pmDo not let the outrage die.

In the wake of the horrific mass murders in Newtown, Conn., we’ve read plenty of newspaper articles, listened to numerous TV commentators, read hundreds of Facebook posts, all with the same message:  we need to talk about gun control.

And yet. My biggest fear is that, once the grief and shock die down, so too will the resolve to take, in our President’s words, “meaningful action.”  As Huffington Post polling editor Mark Blumenthal wrote on Friday, interest in gun control spiked after the 1999 massacre at Columbine, but faded within a year:

“The post-Columbine bump faded about a year later, and support for stricter gun laws remained roughly constant over the next eight years. Following the 2008 election, however, it dropped off considerably. By April 2010, Pew Research found more Americans placed greater importance on protecting the rights of gun owners (49 percent) than on restricting gun ownership (45 percent).”

I beg you: Do not let the outrage die.

We know why politicians are often loathe to put gun control front and center, hiding behind the Second Amendment (which, for the record, was designed to allow citizens to arm themselves against tyranny, not each other): the NRA and the powerful gun lobby, as well as the overwhelming number of Americans who own guns.  (As Alex Pareene reports in Salon, America “is home to 310 million nonmilitary firearms. That’s nearly one gun for every resident of the country, or just about three for each ‘household’.”)

According to Sunday’s New York Times, after Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011, the Justice Department made a list of measures to keep guns away from criminals and those with mental illness – a list that was predominantly shelved as campaign season approached.  And, as the New York Times’ Nate Silver reports, over the years the very rhetoric surrounding firearms has changed:

For opponents of stricter gun laws, the debate has increasingly become one about Constitutional protections. Certainly, many opponents of gun control measures also argue that efforts to restrict gun ownership could backfire in various ways or will otherwise fail to reduce violence. But broadly speaking, they would prefer that the debate be about what they see as Constitutional rights, rather than the utilitarian consequences of gun control measures.

Their strategy may have been working. The polling evidence suggests that the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years. There may be some voters who think that the Constitution provides broad latitude to own and carry guns – even if the consequences can sometimes be tragic.

Discouraging news.  But what I wonder is why we can’t follow the lead of another group of outraged women, Mother Against Drunk Drivers, and, if nothing else, make owning a gun as socially unacceptable as driving drunk. Both can kill.

Could Women Against Guns be as powerful as Mothers Against Drunk Driving?

Obviously, there are other issues at play when it comes to Newtown, where 20 children who still believed in Santa Claus were killed by multiple gunshot wounds from a semiautomatic weapon — some of them shot as many as 11 times — in slightly less time than it takes to read this post.

Yes, we need to talk about mental health, to recognize and treat mental illness, no matter the cost.  We need to remove the stigma around mental illness so that families are given the acceptance and understanding that would allow them to get their ill children adequate treatment and support.  We need to talk about the prevalence of violence in video games, movies and TV shows, and its effects. We need to tackle the problems of schoolyard bullies and young people’s alienation once and for all.

But above and beyond the why is the how.  What turns things deadly is America’s easy access to firearms, which makes acting on violent impulses quick, efficient and final.  Had Adam Lanza been armed with a knife or a baseball bat, or even a single Saturday night special, how many children could he have killed in the 15 minutes before he was stopped?

I myself have never seen a real gun, except on the belt of a police officer.  But I have been privy to the devastation they can leave:

• A neighbor’s twenty-something son, suffering from a severe depression, went up to his bedroom and shot himself in the head one evening while his mother was downstairs doing the dishes.

• A beautiful, ebullient, brilliant — and bipolar — young attorney, after a week of horrendous migraines, shot and killed herself one afternoon while her husband was at work.

• The young son of family friends was showing a playmate his father’s hunting rifle when it went off.  And killed him.  Though this happened before I was born, I heard the story over and over, a tale of heartbreak from which the family barely recovered.

In all these cases the firearms were perfectly legal.  As were the guns used by Adam Lanza. They were owned and registered to his mother, who apparently kept them in the house.

According to Sunday’s Washington Post, Calif. Sen. Diane Feinstein told “Meet the Press” that she would introduce legislation to ban assault weapons at the start of the next Congress. (She sponsored a ban on semiautomatic weapons in 1994, after a mass shooting in San Francisco’s financial district.  It expired in 2004). It’s a good first step.  But frankly, it’s not enough for me.  I won’t be happy until we consider owning a gun as socially suspect as getting behind the wheel after a couple of cocktails.  Especially if there are kids in the house, or anyone with mental illness.

I know what comes next: When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Who cares?  There will still be fewer guns on the street.  And, by all  definitions, neither Adam Lanza nor his mother were  outlaws.

We have no problem turning drunk drivers or even smokers into pariahs.  We would never let our kids hop into a car with an alcoholic at the wheel.  But what about playing at the home of a playmate whose dad keeps a gun beside his bed – a gun designed to protect but, as statistics show, is likely to put the household at greater risk.  According to Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of The Task Force for Global Health, speaking on NPR this past August:

.. a study that was done to look at whether having a firearm in your home actually does protect you, or whether it puts you at greater risk, showed that families and homes in which there was a gun, not only were they not protected against homicide, but the risk of gun homicide to people in those households was 2.7 times greater than the households without a gun. And the risk of suicide in those households was 4.8 times greater in the households with firearms.

So what can we do?  Here’s a start:

• Put pressure on our elected officials to take “meaningful action”.

• Refuse to vote for any politicians, local or otherwise, who take money from the NRA, and let them know why you will not support them.

• If your community has a gun buy-back program, support it.

• Sign one of the many online petitions floating around the internet.

I’ve even heard, via Facebook, of the potential for a “One Million Child March on DC for Gun Control.” In the meantime, the most important thing we all can do is keep the conversation going:  Mothers were the driving force to get drunks off the road.  Can we women do the same when it comes to guns?

Those beautiful first-graders of Sandy Hook were America’s children.  We are all their mothers.

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I frequently hear from former students – usually bright, idealistic twentysomethings — long after they’ve exchanged their college dreams for, you know, reality.

Often, these women are more than a little shell-shocked when they come face to face with the disconnect between their high expectations and life out there in the real world of work.  Their notes, emails and phone calls speak of a certain dissatisfact  Raised to believe they could have it all, they’re suddenly undecided.  Disillusioned. Wondering about that greener grass.  One former student, channeling Betty Friedan, called it “the other problem that has no name.”  All this angst, in fact, was one of the triggers for our book.

The latest email came from a focused young woman – we’ll call her Susie — who moved several states away after she scored the job of her dreams at a big tech company right out of the gate.  Great, right?  But what she wrote was anything but.

She first relayed a story of a friend, an Ivy League grad who was now working in New York – who was so miserable at her job she was thinking of calling it quits.  Why?  Constant sexist remarks.  A sense that she was invisible to the powers that be.  The final straw?  One of the partners in her firm sent out an office-wide email, addressed “Dear Gentlemen”, even though there were several women on the chain – and left her off it completely, though a male employee with her same job was included.

Small stuff, maybe.  But when you’ve been led to believe that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, that feminist battles have been fought and won, that you, sister, have achieved equality, reality provides a nasty wake-up call.

Anyway, back to Susie, who had her own tale of invisibility to tell.   Not long ago, she flew off to run a booth at a trade show for her company.  She reveled in the responsibility – and also in the opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with her brand new boss, who was headquartered in a different state.  But while Susie was busy running the show, a Playboy model who’d been hired by her company for the gig, was working the crowd.

You can guess how this story ends, right?  Susie ended up with about 20 minutes of facetime with her boss, who was far more interested in chatting up the model and taking her to dinner.

“It just leaves so much dissatisfaction in my heart because I feel like there is no way to win this game,” Susie wrote.  “As women, what makes us valuable in the office? There are enough really talented women on my team that I know climbing the ranks is a possibility…”  And yet, she wondered:  how do these women feel when they’re smart, work hard, and then they see, as she did at the tradeshow, that looks carry more currency than talent. “I just wonder,” she wrote, “that even if we reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that might be, will we ever feel like we truly have it?”

Sigh.  One of the most insidious things about this kind of sexism, I told Susie, is that the folks who perpetuate this nonsense rarely realize what they are doing or saying. White male privilege?  More than likely. But it also speaks to the fact that, while we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Which is why I get so grumpy when young women refuse to call themselves feminists – or when their older sisters, the ones who are edging up toward the top of the food chain, are loathe to acknowledge the way things were – and in many cases, still are.

Of course, what rankles the most is the idea that dealing with gender discrimination, with sexism of all kinds, is seen as women’s work.  Shouldn’t it be everyone’s work?

Hillary Clinton — one of the most powerful women in the world and someone who has put up with more than her share of bad behavior solely because of her gender – might well agree.  Check what she told the Gail Collins in an interview in Sunday’s New York Times:

For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, “I could see some eyes glazing over.” But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.

Economics? Brilliant!  Which leads us back to Susie.  Who, we might ask her boss, made more money for her company that week at that trade show?

And exactly who is it that wins when smart and talented young women are too discouraged to stick around?

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With the election looming, we decided to write this one together. Call it our endorsement. Because we’re women! Two generations of them. And between the two of us, we’ve held all kinds of roles: daughter, sister, wife, mother, employee, self-employee, employer of others, homeowner. We are upstanding members of society, participate in the economy, and, in fact, we were both raised Catholic (more on that one later). Our votes are highly coveted, and there is smoke pouring out of our–between the two of us–four ears. Because, spoiler alert: we loathe just about everything the Romney-Ryan ticket stands for. So do most of the women–all of whom are apparently assumed to be fair game for courting as well–we know.

What we loathe even more is the idea that we can be categorized or stereotyped–especially when the box into which we have been placed is dead wrong. Because we are women who fit certain demos, we’re supposed to buy the slate of lunacy they’re selling. Nonsense. (Also, we’re feminists who love fashion, baseball, cooking, and reading. What box do we fit into now?) And that the Republican ticket has made the assumption that women will buy their nonsense is actually laughable, and quite probably a waste of their efforts. (Shhh. Don’t tell ‘em.) Why?

First, let’s do some math. Supposedly, we women–you know, the large monolithic group of us–are most concerned about the economy. If that’s true, and given the fact that most women these days, married or not, are also working, doesn’t it make sense that the vast majority of us would want equal pay for equal work–without being considered some crazy-ass man-hater for pointing out the insanity of paying women 23 percent less than men for the same job?

And then there’s the right’s anti-life positions. There. We’ve said it. For all their talk about being pro-life when it comes to a woman’s right to choose, elsewhere on the dial, on everything from social programs to environmental protections, the ticket is decidedly against it. But don’t take our word for it. Read what Thomas Friedman had to say this weekend:

In my world, you don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and be against common-sense gun control — like banning public access to the kind of semiautomatic assault rifle, designed for warfare, that was used recently in a Colorado theater. You don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, which ensures clean air and clean water, prevents childhood asthma, preserves biodiversity and combats climate change that could disrupt every life on the planet. You don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and oppose programs like Head Start that provide basic education, health and nutrition for the most disadvantaged children. You can call yourself a “pro-conception-to-birth, indifferent-to-life conservative.” I will never refer to someone who pickets Planned Parenthood but lobbies against common-sense gun laws as “pro-life.”

“Pro-life” can mean only one thing: “respect for the sanctity of life.” And there is no way that respect for the sanctity of life can mean we are obligated to protect every fertilized egg in a woman’s body, no matter how that egg got fertilized, but we are not obligated to protect every living person from being shot with a concealed automatic weapon. I have no respect for someone who relies on voodoo science to declare that a woman’s body can distinguish a “legitimate” rape, but then declares — when 99 percent of all climate scientists conclude that climate change poses a danger to the sanctity of all life on the planet — that global warming is just a hoax.

The term “pro-life” should be a shorthand for respect for the sanctity of life. But I will not let that label apply to people for whom sanctity for life begins at conception and ends at birth. What about the rest of life? Respect for the sanctity of life, if you believe that it begins at conception, cannot end at birth. That radical narrowing of our concern for the sanctity of life is leading to terrible distortions in our society.

Even Connie Britton and Sarah Aubrey, the stars of the show Friday Night Lights, wish Mitt would quit it. His use of the show’s slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts,” inspired them to pen a take-back-the-cause. Check it:

And “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” wasn’t just about winning games. Rather, it was a rallying cry of hope and optimism in a community where everyone had a fair shot — no matter their background, no matter their parents, no matter their gender. And no matter their politics.

So it has been surprising that the phrase has been usurped and co-opted by Mitt Romney and his campaign for their gain. And it got us thinking: What would the women of Dillon think about this?

Dillon is a classic American town filled with hard-working, middle-class Americans, who just want to lead productive, healthy lives. And the women we represented on the show — the women we are in real life — are like the millions of women across the nation. Women who want to make our own health care decisions. Women who want to earn equal pay for the work we do. Women who want affordable health care.

And finally, before we start to sputter (too late?), we take more than a little bit of offense about the way the right wing has taken religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, away from the rest of us. (Dorothy Kelley–mother-in-law to Barbara and grandma to Shannon–was a devout Catholic: what that meant to her was social service, volunteering, and treating others like she might hope to be treated. And a penchant for Birkenstocks.) Especially infuriating is the way that Catholicism in particular (again, we both wore Catholic plaid for a sizable chunk of years) has been distorted to be predominantly about sex. As in: gay or straight, don’t have it. Unless, of course, you’re out to make a baby. (If that’s the purpose of marriage and/or sex, how come it’s okay for senior citizens to marry? And, we’re sorry, but but did Jesus ever say, “Thou shalt not have sex”?)

That’s their version of morality. Period, end. The whole Do unto others thing? Meh. Ourselves, like many of us women, we define morality in a broader–ack, dare we say more Christian?–sense, and that has to do with a sense of social justice. For people, and for the earth. (And for the people who find themselves affected and in need of help in the face of natural disasters.)

Us? We’ll be taking that ideal to the voting booth with us, casting votes that are in our interest, and–do unto others!–the interests of others, as well.

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I’m starting to wonder if this presidential election might hinge on apron strings.

In the wake of the last debate, we’ve all been caught up in binders and trapper-keepers and funny Facebook memes – along with some hijinks on Amazon, where a bunch of smartypants hijacked several binder pages.  I think we’re missing the point.

According to the New York Times, both Obama and Romney are in hot pursuit of the women’s vote.  Which is to say, they seem to think that Double Xers may determine the next president of the United States:

 … And on the campaign trail and on the air, the candidates and their allies argued intensely all day over who would do more to help women. At the same time, the topic of whether the heated encounter Tuesday night had alienated the very female voters they were seeking to connect with became fodder for cable TV discussions.

The level of intensity left little doubt that the election was coming down not only to a state-by-state fight for territory, but also to one for the allegiance of vital demographic groups, chief among them undecided women.

Whew.  Whether the chattering class is right or wrong, it appears we have a lot more power than we’ve had in quite the while.  Let’s think this through.

The bedrock issue in the debate over the women’s vote has had to do with reproductive rights:  abortion and contraception.  Key issues.  Agreed.  Especially because the next president will more than likely be appointing one, or maybe two, justices to the Supreme Court, who may hold the future of Roe V. Wade in their hands.

And then there’s the funding of Planned Parenthood, which not only provides family planning services, but also provides women without health insurance life-saving care for breast cancer, among other medical issues.  My friend was one of them.

But the real issue as I see it is the vision of women’s role in the workplace and the home.  I found one of Gov. Romney’s responses in the debate to be key.  The question had to do with inequalities in the workplace, including the pay gap — Go here for a state-by-state chart of gender pay inequity — which the Governor sidestepped with the unfortunate comment about binders.  What I found revealing, not to mention troubling, was the end of his response, which related to the woman he had hired as chief of staff while governor of Massachusetts:

 Now, one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for — making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

On the surface: flexible schedule.  Good.  One of the issues we’ve been writing about is the challenge faced by working women, who put in the same hours as their male counterparts, and then have to dig into the second shift when they get home.  But look again at the governor’s answer, then ask yourself this:  Where was the chief of staff’s husband and/or kids’ daddy at 5:00?

That’s it, right?

Why is it that in 2012 some folks still assume that household and childcare duties are women’s work?  And why, as one of the sources in our book fumed, do we plant work life balance smack in the middle of the “women’s issues” silo?  Shouldn’t this be a human issue?  A family issue?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I cook dinner most nights, no matter what time I get home from work.  And I’m damn good at it.  No, scratch that.  I’m really good at it:  I inherited my culinary mojo from a long line of incredible Italian cooks (Ask me about my aunts’ gnocchi or cannoli sometime, or my mother’s ability to throw together anything fantastic without a recipe).  Plus, I like to eat good food.  But that’s my choice.  Proscribed gender roles have nothing to do with it.

The issue here, as the presidential election heads down the home stretch, has to do with perception as well as policy.  And I suspect that the nuances of the latter are often driven by the former.  And in this case, the perception in question is gender roles in the home as well as the workplace.

Cue the aprons.

The most recent time-use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women still own the second shift. Most telling stats?

On an average day, 19 percent of men did housework–such as cleaning or doing laundry–compared with 48 percent of women. Forty percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 66 percent of women.

All of which, presumably, is on top of a 52 hour work week.

Now, can a president do anything to change all that?  Probably not.  But given that I have been given a lot of power in this election, my vote goes to the guy who doesn’t assume my place is in an apron.

Speaking of which, my husband is wearing one right now.  I’ve got one eye on the Giants game as I write this.  He’s firing up the ‘que and throwing together a salad.

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The last time our family got together — finding all of us in the same zipcode at the same time is a rare and wondrous feat — we hunkered down in a suite at the Holiday Inn Express (Backstory not important). With no bar or restaurant in sight, our family of foodies trekked to the closest place of business, a gas station mini mart, and bought tortilla chips, bean dip and salsa, and wine, which we drank out of styrofoam coffee cups.

I think we were happy.

I got to thinking about all this happiness business the other day via a piece in the New York Times that suggests that our all-American pursuit of happiness leads to nothing but angst.  The writer, Ruth Whippman, a Brit who recently relocated to California, contrasts British grim to American happy and says she’ll take grim any day.  She starts her piece with a quote from Eric Hoffer — “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness” — then sails right in:

Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.

Point taken.  We have tied ourselves up in knots of late by using happiness as the barometer of who we are, what we are, and what we’re doing.  And we find that, no matter what, the scale is such that we don’t measure up.  How could we?  I can’t even define happiness.  Can you?

Nonetheless, this endless quest for what we consider our birthright lands us smack in the land of “yeah, but…” A good job that pays the rent?  And maybe even engaging for some of the day? Yeah, but…  If I put in a few more hours, if I got that raise, if I had a better title, if i didn’t have to grade those papers … Then, I’d be happy.

Family and friends?  We had a blast the last time we got together, but if only we could do it more often.  And, you know, the last time the wine was kinda sub-par….

Great kids?  Well, yeah…  He/she plays well with others, and indeed rocks the playground, but, sigh, we’d all be happier if he/she could get into that Chinese immersion program, get on the select soccer team, score off the charts in math, or get into that pricey school that everyone is talking about.

You get the drift.  We’ve bought into the idea that Happy is measurable, and especially for women it breaks down like this: Great career, with a fat paycheck and smug title. Exotic vacations (cue Facebook).  Adorable family that shows well in the Christmas card photo.  And, of course, scores well, too.  Sexy as all get out (and thin to boot).  A closet full of killer boots. (Okay, my own personal preference. Note: I do not measure up.) Yoga class and book club.  And granite in the kitchen.

Is it all about the shoulds? The quest for perfect?  For most of us, the package is unachievable.  But even if we could lay claim to the whole checklist, there’s always this: the next big thing.   Call it the “If-then” fallacy that keeps us living in the future, and blame it on what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbing on Happiness as our uncanny ability to blow it when it comes to predicting what will make us happy.  There’s something else at play here, too:  the American culture itself.   As we wrote in Undecided:

What gets us into trouble is a culture that is both acquisitional and aspirational, leaving us in a constant drool for the Next. Big. Thing. But once we get it, guess what? We’re happy for five minutes, and then we’re off on the chase. We’re back to square one, lusting again over that greener grass. And here’s an irony: Once we’ve jumped the fence, we sometimes wonder if what we had in the first place might have been what we really wanted after all.

Consumer culture doesn’t help. We’re constantly fed the message that we will be happy, sexy, thin, loved—pick one—if we buy the new and improved face cream, wheat bread, plastic wrap. Do we ever see the message that we have enough? Sure, we’re smart enough to know that ads in glossy magazines do not promise happiness, but the subtext spills over: This thing will make you happy. Get the externals in order. Happiness to follow.

But anyway, back to Whitman, whose column sparked this riff.  From her across-the-pond perspective, she has us down:

Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life. The subject comes up in the park pushing swings alongside a mother I met moments before, with the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket, with my gym instructor and with our baby sitter, who arrives to put our son to bed armed with pamphlets about a nudist happiness retreat in Northern California. While the British way can be drainingly negative, The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Bingo.  In our lifelong chase after the impossible ideal we can’t even define, we’ve blinded ourselves to what happiness may be all about after all: a certain contentment with what is.  An ability to savor  the moment. We might even get there if we could ratchet down our expectations.

Which leads us back to the Holiday Inn Express, where our party of five ended up talking and laughing well into the night.  And even though the wine was sub-par, I think we were happy.  Maybe even with a capital-H.

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In an epic case of What-Goes-Around-Comes-Around, Janice Min, founding editor of Us Weekly magazine (a magazine which traffics in “cute mum and baby” porn and is nearly singlehandedly responsible for introducing terms including “baby bump” and “post-baby body” into the lexicon) who helmed the junkreading juggernaut for six years and now collects her paychecks from the Hollywood Reporter, is bummed because of the pressure she feels, a mere four months after her baby was born, to “get her body back.”

Cue the finger violins.

Don’t get me wrong. I empathize with her plight. No really, I do. But this is the woman who built an empire on careful monitoring of the size and curvature of other womens’ bellies in images superimposed with circles and arrows to help the viewer discern where there might either be a growing baby or, like, the remnants of an Umami burger, under the heading “Bump Alert!” (Such a fun game. If it actually is a baby, it’s so exciting! And if it’s not, it’s so fun to laugh at someone else’s gut!) On cover stories of women who’ve just given birth, prancing in bikinis under headlines like, “How I Got My Body Back” — and stories worrying over the poor souls who haven’t managed to lose the baby weight immediately. Oh, and can’t forget baby: why, it’s the chicest accessory of the season! Min was not only shoveling this schlock week after week after week, she was taking it straight to the bank.

Had anyone else written the piece, which ran in Sunday’s NYT with the title “Can A Mom Get A Break?” I’d be backing her up. But this is simply too much. It’s four months since Min welcomed baby, and the manicurists want to know when she’s due.

There, in the stacks of periodicals at the nail salon, these genetic aberrations smile at us from celebrity magazines, or from our computer screens, wearing bikinis on the beach in Cabo weeks after Caesarean sections, or going straight from the recovery room to Victoria’s Secret runway…
You see, in today’s celebrity narrative, just two kinds of desirable maternal female physiques exist: the adorable gestating one (with bellies called “bumps”) and its follow-up, the body that boomerangs back from birth possibly even better than before.

The “Wow, I totally see the error of my ways and man you really do reap what you sow” you’re waiting for? It begins and ends with this:

I am partly to blame for my own physical netherworld. As the editor of Us Weekly, covering the Suris and Shilohs of Hollywood for six years, I delivered what the young female audience wanted: cute moms and babies. So much so that Tom Wolfe once remarked, ‘The one thing that Us Weekly has done that’s a great boost to the nation is they’ve probably increased the birthrate.”

I don’t know about that (although I honestly wouldn’t be surprised), but a glossy tabloid as ubiquitous as Us can certainly take a leading role in shaping the culture, the “narrative” to which Min refers. (After all: the Stars, as Us likes to point out, Are Just Like Us!) A narrative that’s about appearances. Which is bad. Worse, as Min suggests, is the way in which it morphs:

The recent “Are You Mom Enough?” cover of Time magazine was either the apex or nadir of all our current mama drama. If it wasn’t enough to get creeped out hearing grown men express envy of the breast-feeding 4 year-old boy latched onto his attractive mother, the question posed on the cover seemed to encompass not only the article’s attachment parenting debate, but also the self-doubt that all mothers perpetually face… It’s like our helicopter parenting (with nowhere else to go) turned inward.

Or the judgment we foist upon others turned onto ourselves.

I promise you, I am not taking pleasure in this woman’s pain. In fact, I think there’s a lesson in it for all of us: It’s hard to be a woman. It’s hard to manage the juggle and the pressure and the expectations. But when we pick each other apart for sport, where does that leave us? Spending our baby’s first months of life consumed with getting back into our skinny jeans.

And there’s one more lesson worth thinking about: Karma, as they say, is a bitch. (Especially when she gets her post-baby body back to pre-baby form faster than you.)

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“Good girls go to Heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.” So said Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine and author of the bestselling “Sex and the Single Girl.” And while one can say what one will about Cosmopolitan magazine, few can argue that HGB was not a gamechanger.

Don’t get me wrong: Cosmo will never be mistaken for a bastion of literary sophistication. Indeed, certain types might look down on its not-so-subtle ethos of Empowerment Through Sex Tips. (How many sex tips does an empowered woman really need, after all?) But the thing is, the thing that feels, to American women in the year 2012, so obvious as to be unnecessary to even mention, is that being empowered sexually is inextricably tied to being empowered, period.

In the New York Times’ “99 Ways to Be Naughty in Kazakhstan: How Cosmo Conquered the World,” writer Edith Zimmerman explores the “global juggernaut,”–a phrase which is no exaggeration:

Through those 64 editions, the magazine now spreads wild sex stories to 100 million teens and young women (making it closer to the 12th-largest country [in the world]), actually) in more than 100 nations–including quite a few where any discussion of sex is taboo.

In fact, Zimmerman says she received an email from the editor of Cosmo India, who wrote:

When we launched in 1996, we were flooded with letters — women wanted to know if kissing could cause pregnancy. They were clueless about the basics of having sex, and they had a million questions about what was right and wrong. The Cosmo team actually tackled these questions personally — writing back to readers with answers or carrying stories that tackled their concerns. Indian parents are usually conservative about sexual matters, and friends were often equally ignorant, so Cosmo was the only one with reliable information.

That’s pretty wild. And honestly, it’s pretty important.

Back in America (and back in the day), the messages HGB heralded were proportionately eye-opening. You don’t need a husband to be happy (in fact, she once dropped this doosie: “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen”). Your primary fulfillment should come from work. Be self-sufficient. Have sex. (And lots of it! Without shame!) Work hard. Don’t depend on a man for anything.

“So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life–get it for yourself.

And, she championed the “mouseburgers”–women who didn’t come from privilege, pedigree, or Princeton. Her book “Sex and The Single Girl” was published one year before “The Feminine Mystique.” Something was in the air, and she was a part of it.

And her legacy is clear. While one might no longer embrace her ideas about sleeping with married men (HGB: go for it), anorexia (HGB: a touch of it can be a good thing), or dealing with the boss (HGB: seduce him, then marry him), others have become internalized by our collective, womanly subconscious: namely, that we can have it all.

As we wrote about in Undecided, while women have now reached the point where even that message feels, in some ways, constrictive–knotted up with pressure and expectations and juggling and the entrenched inequality that remains–clearly, we’re making progress. HGB and countless others had their eyes on the ball (I refuse to make a Cosmo-worthy pun here); it’s our job to keep running with it.

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