Archive for August, 2009

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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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before–women are less assertive than men, as evidenced by the way we soften strong statements with “hedges” (sort of, maybe, kinda, pretty much), “disclaimers” (I feel, I don’t know, I’m not sure, That’s just my opinion), and “tag questions” (Don’t you think? Isn’t that right?). It’s a favorite topic of women’s mags and students of communication, often taken as a given, but, the results of a recent study suggest that there’s more to it.

In this week’s press release announcing the findings of the study, Nicholas Palomares, assistant professor of communication at UC Davis writes:

Women hedge, issue disclaimers and ask questions when they communicate, language features that can suggest uncertainty, lack of confidence and low status. But men do the same, according to new research.

Hold the phone. Men do the same?

Yep, Palomares found that–in written (email) communication at least–men were tentative when discussing stereotypically feminine things (from the study: “one man, believing he was corresponding with a woman, wrote: ‘…maybe girls prefer the quality of products at Sephora over other major department stores? I don’t know.’), while women were tentative when discussing stereotypically masculine things (insert requisite how-to-change-a-tire anecdote here), and found “no difference in tentativeness when he asked his subjects to write emails about gender-neutral topics, such as recommending a good restaurant.”

But what of all of those studies showing that women are less likely to raise their hands in the classroom, less likely to ask for raises in the boardroom? More on that in a second. But first, the study’s tidy wrap-up:

His conclusion: Some topics cause men and women to think and communicate in terms of their gender, which leads to tentativeness when the topic is inconsistent with their gender.

Inconsistent with their gender. That, well, that got my mind spinning. Stay with me. Could it be that, because for so long women had such “low status” at school and work, that those very environments felt foreign–maybe even masculine? Is that why, statistically, we don’t demand the raises we deserve at work, don’t raise our hands at school, even when we know the answer? And could it then be that, because for so long women had so few choices about what to do with our lives, could the reason we hem and we haw, we analyze to the point of paralysis, we second-guess ourselves at every turn, could it be because making confident life choices based on what it is we really want seems a little, oh I don’t know, bold, assertive… ahem, manly?

I mean, I don’t know, that’s just my opinion.

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The other day, I got an interesting email from a good friend of mine. She was walking home from work, she said, having what she referred to as a “low self-esteem day,” when she came upon a big sign in a storefront, picturing three smiling (appropriately diverse, yet all perfectly coiffed) women, “around our age,” her email said (read: early-to-mid 30s), looking happy, healthy, content. “And I just thought to myself I bet they all have kids.” This particular friend doesn’t even want to have children–an assertion she reiterated in her email–but that didn’t stop the tears. “I just feel like life is passing me by,” she wrote.

(For the record, this friend is amazing and wildly enviable in her own right. She’s lived all over the world, and is successful, beautiful, talented, happily married.)

In a way, it reminded me of this comment, from Christine:

I am a 30 year old mother of two who has definately suffered from the “grass is greener” syndrome. After my daughter was born, I chose to stay at home with my children while pursuing an education. I not only became extreamely depressed, because I felt that I should be “doing it all” (work, school, housewifing, and mothering), but I percieved critism from other women for my choice. I felt like I was worthless. I did not appreciate my life and the wonderfull oppurtunity that I had to be with my children. I was more concerned with what I thought I should be doing, then with what I had chosen to do. I felt that there was something wrong with me, because I could not be the “supermom” (al a Claire Huxtable) that is portrayed on television as the epitome of womanhood. When I finally decided that I needed a job, I spent the whole time that I was at work wishing that I was at home with my kids.

They’re familiar feelings, even for those of us who, outwardly, do seem to have it all. And yet, I think, for women, the whole “life is passing me by” thing is somewhat new. (For men, the story’s so old, there’s an archetype: divorce, young girlfriend, Corvette. Even, for some, toupee. Cringe.) Aging, of course, is as old as time. But, as my friend and I talked it out later–over wine, naturally–we determined that this particular brand of angst has less to do with aging per se than it does with the idea that, as time goes by, what once looked like a wide-open wonderland bursting with possibility and open doors starts looking more and more like a collage of What You’re Missing Out On. That, with every choice we make, we shut those other doors for good, one by painful one. It’s that evil ‘opportunity cost‘ thing, come home to roost. And there’s no model for how to deal with our feelings over what we’re leaving behind Doors Number Two through Infinity (after all, if we can ‘do anything,’ the possibilities are literally infinite, right?).

We want to travel, but can’t take off whenever we feel like it if we’re also going to get our business off the ground–and featured on Oprah. We want a family, but that’d mean that packing up and moving to Cairo or New Orleans on a whim is pretty much off the table. We want to be there for our daughter’s every milestone, yet we also want to model what a successful career woman looks like. We want torrid affairs and hot sex, but where would that leave our husbands? We want financial security and a latte on our way to the office every morning, but sit in our ergonomically correct chairs daydreaming about trekking through Cambodia with nothing but our camera and mosquito net. We want to be an artist, but have gotten rather used to that roof over our heads. We want to be ourselves, fully and completely, but would like to fit in at cocktail parties, too. (And when on earth are we going to find the time to write our novel??)

And it can’t help that women are so often subject to the Either-Or treatment. You can be a Madonna or a whore, a Peggy or a Joan, or as The Guardian argued yesterday, a Jen or a Cameron. By virtue of being one, we necessarily are not the other–have we absorbed this paradigm to the point that its extension holds sway as well? Do we believe that it’s necessarily mother or CEO? traveler or wife? artist or president of the PTA? (And, if this either-orism is but an illusion, is it possible that all those closed doors we’re so busy pining over might in fact be unlocked?)

Granted, these are beautiful, wonderous, lucky problems–pardon me, choices–to have.

And make no mistake, we know how lucky we are. We’ve been reminded regularly, since we were sporting pigtails and must-see TV was 3-2-1- Contact: You girls today are so lucky, you can be anything you want! And don’t forget that we came of age during the Have it All era–another swell idea in theory. But I think those sentiments–constructed though they were to be capital-E-Empowering!–often play out to look a little more like capital-D-Disappointing. Like fear that the path we’ve picked isn’t good enough, or that we missed our calling along the way, or that we’ll never get to do all the things we can do, or that because we can do it all, we should. And the real stink of it is that all this fixating on what we’re not doing makes us that much less able to enjoy what it is we are doing. Knowing we can do anything, trying to have it all… it kind of makes me wonder, have we all just been set up?

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Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine was devoted to women, and if you’ve not read it yet, I implore you to do so. Granted, it won’t be much fun, but I think the issues it raises are critically important for all women. The cover lines give fair warning of what’s to come, as well as why it matters: “In many parts of the world, women are routinely beaten, raped or sold into prositution. They are denied access to medical care, education and economic and political power. Changing that could change everything” and then, in larger font: “Why Women’s Rights Are the Cause of Our Time.”

Inside are no end of reasons to be appalled, outraged, shocked, devastated. Among them: “The Daughter Deficit,” which outlines why–at first pause, counterintuitively–development in India and China (where, ironically, a saying asserts that “women hold up half the sky”) has led to even more discrimination against girls. And, in this case, “discrimination” means killing and neglect, while “development” means more education and money and lower birth rates with little change to these societies’ traditional patriarchal values–making the birth of a daughter for a family that will likely only have a couple of children an out-and-out “disaster”–and access to ultrasounds, which leads to frequent abortions of female fetuses.

In the cover piece, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, you will read about Pakistani, Burundi, Indian, and Rwandan women who’ve overcome unfathomable injustices–and emerged on the other side, educating themselves and turning microloans into successful businesses with which they’re able to support their families.

In “Lives: Truck Stop Girls,” you’ll read about prostitutes in Swaziland, including a 16 year-old, HIV positive orphan who wants only “Someplace safe. Someplace to be a girl.”

And in “A School Bus for Shamsia,” you’ll read about Afghan girls who risk everything for their education, including Shamsia, who had battery acid thrown on her face on her way to school one day. In that piece, Dexter Filkins writes of a visit he made to Mirwais Mena School, which Shamsia continues to attend:

I sometimes sensed a revolution was quietly unfolding. In a second-story classroom, one teacher, Mohammed Daoud, stood before 25 girls and delivered what was ostensibly a talk about Islam. But after a while, the talk turned into something else.
‘You should work,’ Daoud told the girls. ‘You should serve your country-serve the people. You should strive to do great things,’ he continued, ‘and you should try to be independent and self-reliant.’
The girls looked on, wide-eyed.
‘A woman can do whatever she attempts,’ he said. ‘But she needs skills, she needs effort and learning… A woman should have self-confidence,’ he told the girls, ‘and she should trust in herself that she can do anything.’

You’ll also come across some seriously empowering stuff. Like this:

A series of studies has found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently, children are healthier.

And this:

Aid has often been most effective when aimed at women and girls; when policy wonks do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return. Only a small proportion of aid specifically targets women or girls, but increasingly donors are recognizing that this is where they often get the most bang for the buck.

(That section goes on to cite echoing studies and statements from the likes of Larry Summers, Bill Gates, and Goldman Sachs, not to mention the Hunger Project, the Center for Global Development, and CARE.)

And then there’s this:

Greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism.

Up front, in a Q and A with Liberia’s (female) head of state Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Deborah Solomon, Sirleaf does more than hint that the world might be a safer place with women at the helm:

Q: If women ran the world, would wars still exist?
A: No. It would be a better, safer, and more productive world. A woman would bring an extra dimension to that task-and that’s a sensitivity to humankind. It comes from being a mother.

And what does this all have to do with us, priveledged souls burdened primarily with more choices than we know what to do with? A lot, I should think. Because we, the latte-swilling, cubicle-dwelling, work-and-life balancing (underpaid, underrepresented) millions, while still not at the finish line, are leading the way for our sisters around the world. And who better to speak to this interconnectedness than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? As she puts it in a Q and A with Mark Landler:

I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress…. So-called women’s issues are stability issues, security issues, equity issues.

And then, the grand finale. Landler asks, “is there any lesson from your presidential campaign that you can take to women elsewhere in the world?”

An excerpt from Madame Secretary’s answer:

My campaign for many reasons gave a lot of heart to many young women. It is still the most common comment that people make to me: ‘your campaign gave me courage’ or ‘your campaign made a difference in my daughter’s life’ or ‘I went back to school because of your campaign.’ So, it is unfinished business and young women know it is unfinished business. The vast majority of them will never run for political office… But they may decide to seek an education that their family doesn’t approve of, or move away for a job that is a little bit frightening to them, but which they feel they’ve got the skills to do. Or, you know, stand up and speak out against an injustice they see. And it is all of that ripple that is building and building –and is unstoppable.

Here’s to building that ripple. It seems the world depends on it.


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Are We All Outsiders?

Do we still want to be Molly Ringwald?

A recent retrospective of the late John Hughes’ eighties work by New York Times writer A.O. Scott made me start thinking that the answer might be, um, maybe. Were those coming-of-age stories etched in our psyches when many of us were, well, coming of age (okay, I was long past it, but the characters still resonated)? Do we still carry that vision of ourselves as the romantic misfit?

And does that impact the choices we make — or how satisfied we are with them once we’ve made them? If we still yearn to be the misunderstood outsider who, in the long run, comes out on top — does that make it tougher to be satisfied with real life?

According to Scott, Ringwald was “for Mr. Hughes what James Stewart had been for Frank Capra at the end of the Great Depression, and what Anna Karina had been for Jean-Luc Godard in the mid-’60s: an emblem, a muse, a poster child and an alter ego.”

Especially in “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink” (directed by Howard Deutch from Mr. Hughes’s script), she represented his romantic ideal of the artist as misfit, sensitive and misunderstood, aspiring to wider acceptance but reluctant to compromise too much.

In “Sixteen Candles” she’s Sam, the neglected younger sister and social oddball; in “Pretty in Pink” she is Andie, a poor girl in a sea of affluence….

Be honest: didn’t you identify with that “reluctant to compromise too much? And could that discomfort with compromise, the reluctance to relinquish the outsider status linger today?

Further on, Scott writes:

It is true that while his heroes, most notably Ferris Bueller and the members of the Breakfast Club, are in conflict with authority, they are also stubborn in their individualism and often unapologetically materialistic. Which is part of what makes them authentic, and authentically confused. The unspecified North Shore Chicago suburb where most of these stories take place is, at first glance and in its own mind, a paradise of uniformity and privilege. And this setting, rather than being the facile hell imagined in movies like “American Beauty,” is shown as a genuine expression of the American utopian ideal, a pastoral city on a hill where everyone is comfortable and everyone’s the same.

The paradox is that most people feel, and want to be, different. Not to smash the system or flee its clutches, but rather to find a place within it where they can be themselves, even if they like strange music, come from a poorer family or favor eccentric styles of dress. That desire is what motivates Sam, the birthday girl in “Sixteen Candles,” and it also drives both the cocky Ferris Bueller and his nervous buddy Cameron. The great, paradoxical insight of “The Breakfast Club” is that alienation is the norm, that nerds, jocks, stoners, popular girls and weirdos are all, in their own ways, outsiders.

Still the norm? If so, you have to wonder: Why do we hang on to that vision of ourselves? And if we do, does it hold us back?

Just thinking.

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Yesterday, some chat about feminism. Today, a little bit more — on a little bit more.

On “As In Sit-coms, So In Life”:

I was born in 1965, am African-American and grew up going to parochial schools and living on the southside of Chicago. When I was in highschool, I did not take any home economics classes, though they were offered. I was, in my mind, a feminist and would never be a house wife. My mother was not so why would I? I refused to take typing because I was going to have a secretary, not be one. I went to and graduated from a very prestigious midwestern university and took at least 3 Women’s Studies courses. I liked them so much that I would have majored in it if I was not so busy trying to become an electrical engineer. The fact is, I did not become an electrical engineer, I switched majors in my junior year( might not have graduated otherwise) Fastforward to now: I am a first time mother at 43 ( my newborn son in adopted) who works outside the home. I love to cook, sew and bake. I would give anything to be a stay at home mom. So I guess what we really got from the women’s movement was the choice to be who we want to be. Though I often think we sort of got a raw deal because a lot of us do it all, work full time and take care of our children and our household, not one or the other. In my case, I am just starting to really figure out who I want to be, and it’s niether Peggy or Joan, nor is it Laura Petry or Florida Evans. I just want to be a good mom to my son, a good wife to my husband and use my talents to create a masterpiece of my life. And as for that whole thing about not being a secretary? Guess what I do for a living… — Kim

A conversation from “And You Wonder: Why Women”:

I just had my first child at age 36. During the years before this I was diligently working on my career. Which I love, and had been successful at. It is part of who I am.
Enter Baby.
I love my son. I adore taking care of him. I decided that I could work and have a family.
Next: Slap in the face.
My employer of more than 10 years hires a young single man to roll out a project that I had been preparing for over a year.  I was told it was because I was no longer available 24/7.  My world was rocked! I could not believe that it was even happening. I mean aren’t women equal to men now? Nope, we are not. Well, maybe if we stay childless. — CB

Question for the above (C.B.): Did you downshift to part-time after becoming a mom, or change to a flex-time work schedule or some such? It seems you have a case for discriminatory practices if not in my opinion, so I’d consider lodging a formal complaint because a company is NOT supposed to change your job duties like that for no other reason than your entry into motherhood. In addition, how could they assume you would “no longer be available 24/7″ if your work schedule is still the same?  Fight back, that’s the only way we can change those attitudes!  That said, there’s a lady who recently quit my son’s daycare, and she worked for a Big 4 Accounting firm in IT and had been given an extended Maternity Leave + Part-time schedule (that was supposed to be temporary) following her return. The employer accomodated her, but now she’s pregnant again (her son is around 19mos, next baby due late Fall) and they tried to force her to go back to Full-Time schedule. She refused and was “laid off” during some recent cuts. She told me she didn’t care because “that job is like, #5 down on my list of most important things”. Hmmm…seems some women do try to work the system and slack off or take advantage of their employers, and I’m sure this often leads to resentment among bosses of women who return to work but aren’t serious about their jobs any longer. — Crystal

Hi Crystal,                                                                                         The company I work for announces on the phone system welcoming greeting that we are open from 8:30 – 5:50. But really we are a 24/7 operation. Employees arrive around 9 in the morning and routinely stay at least 12 hours and commonly for two or three days straight to accommodate our clients. That is how I worked right up to the birth of my son. I now can only work from 8 – 4 due to daycare constraints. Plus my husband is in the military and is currently deployed. So I MUST go and get my son. There is no one else to do it. I still work full-time and I put in a 40 hour week – but my co-workers do double that. That is where the issues come in.The other problem is that I work for a very small company and they are not obligated to follow any of the Federal Rules regarding FMLA and the like. And to add insult to injury – there is a Pregnany protection law – but that’s as far as it goes. They were fine when I was pregnant – it’s after the fact that we have issues. I agree that fighting back would be the best thing to do. But I will tell you why I am not. I am so disgusted with my long-time employers I no longer want to work there. And will be leaving at the end of the year. I know that gives them exactly what they want. But I can no longer look at them with any respect and I will never be doing what I want to do. So really – what’s the point? — CB

On Great Expectations:

I also read “Stumbling Onto Happiness”, not sure what made me pick up this book but it was brilliant! I felt really enlightened after reading the book. Study after study has shown that children do NOT make a couple “happier” (the reverse tends to be ture), and that money has only a marginal utility of return (the more you earn beyond a certain point, the less it matters regarding your happiness-level). The book also talks about how even people who are severely DISABLED (legally blind, paraplegic, conjoined twins etc.), are not really effected as far as their happiniess-level goes, and that’s quite a shock to most people I think. Anyway, women tend to be more introspective, we want jobs/careers/choices that will make us HAPPY, whereas men will stick with jobs that suck (Law Firms that require 60hrs/wk in billable hours, boring cubicle jobs in Corporate America that pay good if you stick with it) because they tend to focus on the bottom line ($$$). Ultimately, maybe women should not care so much about following their “heart’s passion” because a job/career can only bring you so much satisfaction. I work to earn a paycheck, not because my job “makes me happy”, but I’ve seen women waste the best years of their life trying to “find themselves” and winding up broke or stuck forever in entry-level or dead-end jobs. — Crystal

I totally agree. You never know what will make you happy, and I feel like the more expectation you put on something, the less likely it is to live up to it. It is like New Years Eve… so much pressure is put on you to have great plans and an epic night, and in the past, I have usually had more fun grabbing dinner and drinks with friends on the night before, or the night after, or any other random tuesday. Do what makes you happy right now, don’t expect a new job or new house or new city or new boyfriend or new baby to change everything and bring you the ultimate happiness you’ve been waiting for. Like the old saying goes, wherever you go, there you are… — Colleen

From “About this Blog“:

I think this blog is great! It reminds me of a book I read — The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. While the book discusses having (too many) options most evident in consumerism (e.g. we can have boot, straight, flared fit for jeans. acid wash? stone wash? sand wash? etc), the discussion also grazes on sociological analysis. Most notable is the topic of the “quarter life crisis,” where those in the twenty-year-old range are disappointed and restless with whatever their choices are, whether it be continuing in higher education or choosing a career. Having choices is great!! But, it apparently requires a certain type of approach, otherwise one could get overwhelmed. As a fresh graduate (bachelor’s degree), I feel exceptionally at peace with myself, my post-education decisions, and feminism. I proudly proclaim myself as a feminist; I make sure to dispel stereotypes of feminists to friends, family, men and women alike. No matter where I am in a decade, either raising a family or involved with my work, I’m ready to be happy and satisfied with it. — Jeannie

And finally, from our last Zeitgeist:

I think one of the best things about this blog are the comments from visitors. They add a new perspective and real life stories which greatly enhance your postings.
This is so much more informative and relevant than the “information” given by experts in other locations on the web. Keep up the good work, and to those who are readers of the blog, keep posting!!! Don’t think that your thoughts are too unimportant to post. —

We aim to please.  Keep your comments coming.

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A flurry of interesting comments blew in over the last couple weeks. Many of them in answer to Shannon’s loaded question: Are You A Feminist:

This reminds me of something I studied in a sociology class in college–it was the idea that the majority of gay men were beer-drinking, sports-watching, suit-wearing so called “normal” guys, who just happened to be gay. The theory was used to de-bunk the stereotype. In the same way, the cliche of the bra-burning, man-hating, feminist has–or should–become a thing of the past!

It’s a catch 22…perhaps women don’t want to admit to being a feminist because of they don’t want to be perceived as the extreme. but the more people jump on board, the less ‘extreme’ or ‘lefty’ the movement becomes. so jump in everybody–and you can leave your Bic behind. — Libby

To be honest, I used to be one of those women. My second year of college, I took a Women’s studies class and our first assignment was to answer the question “Are you a Feminist?”

I can remember sitting at my computer, writing my response and laughing as the sarcasm oozed onto the screen. I poked fun at the word ‘herstory’ and talked about how trivial I thought the cause was. Shameful..I know! By the end of the year, though, my views had changed drastically.

Oddly, it wasn’t until I became a Mother that my interest in the Feminist cause really peaked.

I think you are dead on. I think many women are afraid to identify themselves as feminists for a variety of reasons. Maybe they don’t really understand what it’s about or they have some false perception of what a feminist is.

Whatever the case, I don’t believe that the road paved for feminism ends until everyone answers ‘YES’ to the question ‘Are you a feminist’ Am I right?? — Sarah

Feminist? hell yes. man hater? no. — Sophia

I’ve dubbed myself the ‘closet feminist’ because in the business world, where I have spent the last thirty years it was not OK to be known as a feminist. A feminist was seen a man-hating uptight bitch with no sense of humor and that certainly didn’t fit my personality. So other than toss a few barbs in a humorous manner, no, I never admitted to being a FemiNazi, as my husband describes it. Your article is right on the money and it’s good to see that young women of today are willing to take up the cause, because there are plenty of battles yet to win. You go girl! — Jeanne

I am a male, and I proudly call myself a feminist. At 62 I have lived through the entire “feminist” movement, but all it takes to remind me of what a great distance still has to be travelled is one question to Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State (for God’s sake) about policy: What does your husband think about this?

What the hell is that????

Come in and smell the Chanel #5. — TK

I have always thought that I am not a feminist. Not because I think feminists are ugly (I don’t) or because I am afraid of appearing passé (I’m not). It’s a simpler nuance, really.

I have never considered myself a feminist for this reason: I always thought that feminism involves more than just fighting the little daily fights that are personal to me (i.e., knowing I am entitled to equal pay and equal opportunities, and demanding those things for myself). Because I am not involved in feminist causes, and do nothing to champion the rights of other women, I never thought the feminist label applied to me.

Thanks for this perspective, Shannon. Maybe I am one of “them” after all. — Alison

I’m sad that feminist has become a dirty word over the past few decades, but you’re right—a lot of this fighting about what it means to be a feminist is just about labeling.

The bottom line is that sexism still exists, and we should all be outraged by it. I get annoyed by the “I’m not a feminist, but…” folks, sure. Nevertheless, as long as there is a but in there, supposedly they’re outraged by something sexist and are going to do something about it. — ubuntucat

More comments tomorrow, on other topics. Meanwhile, give us a ping and join the conversation. Happy Monday.

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Apparently, pot bellies are the new cool. If you happen to be a young male hipster.

Stay with me here: This is all about the way the media treat women as opposed to men, and why it appears that women can’t win.

According to The New York Times Style section, the Ralph Kramden look is In. And the growing presence of women in the workplace is as much to blame as Pabst Blue Ribbon. I don’t make this stuff up. From the story:

Too pronounced to be blamed on the slouchy cut of a T-shirt, too modest in size to be termed a proper beer gut, developed too young to come under the heading of a paunch, the Ralph Kramden is everywhere to be seen lately, or at least it is in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, the McCarren Park Greenmarket and pretty much any place one is apt to encounter fans of Grizzly Bear.

What the trucker cap and wallet chain were to hipsters of a moment ago, the Kramden is to what my colleague Mike Albo refers to as the “coolios” of now. Leading with a belly is a male privilege of long standing, of course, a symbol of prosperity in most cultures and of freedom from anxieties about body image that have plagued women since Eve.

Until recently, men were under no particular obligation to exhibit bulging deltoids and shredded abdominals; that all changed, said David Zinczenko, the editor of Men’s Health, when women moved into the work force in numbers. “The only ripples Ralph Kramden” and successors like Mike Brady of “The Brady Bunch” had to demonstrate were in their billfolds, said Mr. Zinczenko, himself a dogged crusader in the battle of the muffin top. “But that traditional male role has changed.”

Does this mean Macy’s double-truck ads of edgy young men will feature beer bellies, unbuttoned shirts, straining T-shirts with ironic sayings and girl-cut jeans that nonetheless sag below the gut? The new measure of cool? Oh, the irony.

Because for women, the reverse is still painfully true. We may have begun to bring home the bacon — but clearly, we’re not supposed to look like we eat any of it. At least as far as media images are concerned.

We all know that photo retouching has long been a staple of women’s mags, and other kinds of advertising. Need a reminder? You’ll find a before and after retouching of Faith Hill on a Redbook cover, courtesy of Jezebel, here. And don’t forget the way Katie Couric was retouched in the CBS News promos right before she took over as anchor. Like magic, she lost a quick 20.

But nothing brings the point home faster than the latest cover of Self Magazine, where the photo of normal-woman-sized Kelly Clarkson has been retouched to make her look sleek and svelte in — what else — white jeans. You want irony? How about the teaser running across the bottom of the cover — and Clarkson’s thighs: “Total Body Confidence.”

You want more irony? Salon.com’s Broadsheet not only posts a video of the real life Clarkson, as opposed to the glamour shot, but also quotes editor Lucy Danziger’s rationale for the retouch:

As she explains, a fashion photograph of a hair-styled, made-up, retouched celebrity is “not, as in a news photograph, journalism.” Fair enough. But while insisting that “the truest beauty is the kind that comes from within” and that “Kelly says she doesn’t care what people think of her weight,” Danziger explains that the cover photo is meant to “inspire women to want to be their best.”

…After boasting of altering Clarkson’s appearance to make her look her “personal best,” Danziger says “in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand.”

… Adding fuel to the dustup, Self’s editorial assistant Ashley Mateo blogs furthermore that “No one wants to see a giant picture of some star’s cellulite on the cover of a monthly mag — that’s what we have tabloids for!”

Wait. There’s more. We all know how supermodels Cindy Crawford, Amber Valetta et al. appear on the page. Usually. Here’s how they look sans make-up and retouching courtesy Harper’s Bazaar, courtesy New York Magazine. Still beautiful. Yet, fashion mags still taunt us with their retouched images of impossibility.

And there’s this: Politics Daily heralded Hillary for sticking up for herself in the Congo. Then wondered, in WTF Fashion, what the Daily Beast’s Tina Brown was thinking in an interview later with Joe Scarborough:

Sadly, despite feminism’s long strides in the political evolution of our species, the way some women respond to other women still has a ways to go. I wasn’t surprised when I heard from a colleague Thursday morning that celebrity editor Tina Brown, while seemingly being supportive of Mrs. Clinton, had just called her contemporary superwoman “fat.” In the actual quote on Morning Joe, the Daily Beast editor-in-chief, who is a slim 56 years old, said she believed after a seven-nation, 11-day tour of the formerly dark continent, the sexagenarian secretary must be “feeling fat.” Brown posited to Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski that perhaps Clinton, having stayed in Mogadishu a day too long, needed to “get back to the gym.”

Finally, there’s this, from the Daily Mail online: When it comes to women’s tennis, center court at Wimbledon goes to the pretty girls, rather than the top seeds. And according to Jessica Faye Carter on True/Slant, the emphasis on looks, rather than ability, is starting to infiltrate women’s golf as well.

Funny, when you juxtapose this all with those pot-bellied hipsters. But not really.

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I’m going to begin with a caveat here: I like Judd Apatow’s movies. They make me laugh. And part of me feels a little sorry for him, as it seems he’s maxed out his cool outsider cred as of late and is now veering into the territory of the overexposed love-t0-be-hated. But.

I also confess that I agree with one of main criticisms sent his way: while the men in his movies tend to be funny and lovable, the women tend to be unfunny–and frankly, a little shrewish. But I’m willing to grant him a little latitude there; he is, after all, a guy, so I guess it stands to reason that he approaches his work from a (guy’s) guy’s perspective. And there’s something else, too. I think, in their way, the differences between the men and women of his movies reflect one of the defining differences of today’s real-life young men and women: the ways in which women struggle so desperately with the choices they face, that men just don’t.

DoubleX’s Lael Loewenstein touches on this, in her piece “Apatow’s Women Have to Face Up to Reality,” when she mentions a scene from this summer’s Funny People, in which Laura (played by Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann), debating leaving her husband for her old flame, puts him to the test: she plays video of their daughter’s recital, gauging his reaction all the while. As Loewenstein put it:

What Laura wants in a prospective partner–and what George fails to provide–is validation for the choices she’s made. To a woman who’s opted to sacrifice her career so she can have a family, George’s disinterest in Mabel’s performance is especially painful: it’s tantamount to personal rejection. …What the women of Knocked Up and Funny People share is a certain ambivalence and anxiety about their life choices, as well as an acute awareness of their responsibilities. [They] are constantly reminded of their sacrifices. …the message is plain: If you think you can have it all, sister, you’d better think again.

And think again we do. Again and again and again. While the men are busy riding out the remains of an on-the-fly Vegas/mushroom trip gone wrong, the women are left home, to deal with their responsibilities, and to agonize. And that is a sentiment that’s easy to relate to.

And I think that’s where Apatow gets it really, painfully right. And that’s why I’m willing to tolerate the unfunny portrayals–because I recognize the angst behind them. For women, our choices are more wrenching because to get them at all was the prize of a long, hard-fought fight–in a word, valuable–and now that we have them, and have had them long enough to realize that ‘having it all’ is basically a myth, there’s a certain heartbreak that comes with picking. And heartbreak is never very funny.

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Or, “Why Women?” redux.

Apparently, women on the job greatly underestimate their bosses’ opinion of their work. That’s the word from a new study out of the University of New Mexico Anderson School of Management.

Scott Taylor, the study’s author, found that men tend to assume their bosses think more highly of them than they actually do. For women, on the other hand, the reverse is true. According to Taylor, the difference between how they predicted their bosses rated them and their actual ratings was three times greater for women than for men:

What accounts for these results? “The most obvious answer, lack of confidence, can easily be ruled out,” Prof. Taylor says. “How do we know? Women rated themselves just as highly as men rated themselves, an encouraging development from the norm of two or three decades ago.”

Closer to the answer, he thinks, is that “women are so accustomed to decades of being ‘disappeared’ and hearing histories of women whose contributions went unnoticed that they assume these conditions exist to the same extent today. As a result, women in our sample predicted others would not notice their work, when in reality others rated them higher than men on a whole range of emotional and social competencies basic to leadership.”
The study measured nine characteristics: communication ability, initiative, self-awareness, initiative, empathy, bond-building, teamwork, conflict management, and trustworthiness. Here’s what’s interesting: when we go about gender stereotyping, don’t we associate many of those traits with women?
And yet.
That women are rated higher than they think — that’s encouraging. But nonetheless, when that inner voice tells you that, no matter what you think of yourself, you’re underappreciated at best — and wearing the invisible cloak at worst — does it hamper your performance on the job? Tear into your job satisfaction? And is that just one more reason why for women, the workplace structure is more difficult to navigate?
Maybe we can’t get over that feeling that we’re always being judged. Or maybe it’s because we were never socialized to slay the dragon. But I also wonder if one explanation might be the differences in the ways women learn to communicate. According to Santa Clara University Communication Professor Laura Ellingson, Ph.D., a scholar in gendered communication, research shows that women are more tuned into other people’s expressions and underlying meanings when they communicate. In other words, they take in much more information, do a lot more processing, and search for a lot of signals — Is my boss pleased? Does my boss expect me to do this or that? — that may or may not be relevant.
All of which not only makes decision-making more difficult but may also account for the reason why we are always feeling judged. And why we may in fact, as this study shows, misread the cues.
The moral of the story? Can’t say, other than this: if you think you deserve a raise? You probably do. Go in and ask for it.
Meanwhile, speaking of women at work, one more brick in the wall: Surely by now you have heard about the insulting question asked of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and her response, when in the Congo on Monday, and the ridiculous media flurry that followed. Here’s a comment from tk on Shannon’s last post to put this all in perspective:

I am a male, and I proudly call myself a feminist. At 62 I have lived through the entire “feminist” movement, but all it takes to remind me of what a great distance still has to be travelled is one question to Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State (for God’s sake), about policy: What does your husband think about this?

What the hell is that????

Come in and smell the Chanel #5.

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