Archive for October, 2009

So, on Monday I posted a rant in response to Lamar Alexander’s Newsweek argument in favor of a three-year college degree. Got some good responses, including this one from tk:

The three year concept completely baffles me. Especially when Alexander makes reference to no summer breaks. Let’s see, three years plus three summer breaks. Hmmm! It sounds to me like four years. Without the opportunity to get a paying job in the summer and leading to more debt for the students. Some plan!! It may help the colleges pay costs in the summer, but it makes for more debt for the students. Not a good recipe…

I am an attorney, and have been one for almost forty years. My career has been rewarding and fulfilling for me. Without a wide ranging college experience, I would not even be a lawyer because I was a math major, and the math and science requirements alone would have left me no time to explore the humanities, without which…….?

Colleges are NOT simply trade schools. And education is much, much more than training. Core courses provide a context for whatever career we choose. And, context counts. I, for one, am tired of doctors who are science geniuses and devoid of understanding and personal skills. I detest techies who think that the world begins and ends with engineering, and who require mathematical solutions to human problems. And I think we have no more need for business majors to whom the bottom line of their companies is mkore important than their impact on the real lives of real people.
The three year solution will lead to a less educated college graduate, when what we desparately need is a more educated one.

But, let’s face it. He’s been there, done that. Me, too. I wanted to hear from the kids, the ones who are racking up the loans and writing five-figure checks.   So yesterday I sent my Intro/Journalism students out onto the campus to find out what students who would be affected by such a plan thought about it. Their money — given the hefty cost of tuition at our university — or their, well, life plan. Following is a sampling of what they said (I’ve left out names. Hope that’s not a problem). The majority emphasized that, despite the high cost of higher education, the full four year plan is a major factor in their development and growth.

“You learn more about yourself when you try other things, are exposed to new and unique ways of thinking, become more open minded and increase the capacity to understand others,” said one junior woman.

A couple of engineering students said that with a three year plan, they would only be able to focus on engineering classes, leaving them no time to explore other subjects and become well rounded students.

One first year student said that the three-year plan seemed like a more efficient and practical way to save money — and some others agreed, given the cost of tuition. But most of the students who were interviewed voted no. Two sophomores said that they valued the extra time spent as an undergrad, deciding their career path and major. Another described how taking a philosophy course spurred an interest that otherwise would have gone completely unnoticed. One first year kid wondered: “Maybe you find out you don’t like your major — and then you’re stuck.” With the thee year plan, he continued, “you don’t have a chance to experience different courses in college. I’m not a big fan of that idea.”

An accounting major agreed: “I think it’s better to have college students attend for all four years. You need that additional year where you’re still developing your professional skills, your personal skills and social skills. A fourth years would be very critical in working towards your independence.”

All of which was echoed by — okay, not a student — the director of the university’s Career Center: “School is an opportunity to explore what’s important to you, what you’re interested in, and/or passionate about. It’s not learning for its own sake. College allows you to grow in more ways than just taking math, science and English.”

Possibly the best perspective came from a recent grad, who took six years off between high school and college, touring with a punk band and working low-income jobs before returning to school and finally graduating at age 28. “I think it takes most 18 and 19 year olds a few years to decide what it is that they want to do. three-year programs will be sending 20-and 21-year olds out into the workforce when they might not be mentally invested in what they are doing.”

Truth, said one sophomore. “That would suck if you’re only here for three years — then you’re out at 21.”

Read Full Post »

The Office Mom

And then, reader, there’s this.

Allow me to reference a piece titled “The Office Mom,” which ran on Forbes‘ web site Tuesday with the slug:

Women are ditching the stereotype of the imperious, tyrannical boss in favor of the nurturing “office mom.” Is that a good thing?

According to writer Laura Sinberg, it is a good thing indeed. Sinberg writes that, as women now hold 49.9% of jobs, it’s high time to rework our image of the working girl. (Which is to say, to ditch the big haired, shoulderpadded image concocted by the Melanie Griffith’s costume designers for her role in the film Working Girl. Ditto for Meryl Streep’s soulless ice queen in The Devil Wears Prada.)

In a way, it’s as though she read my mind. (Or my post from Tuesday.) Consider:

“For such a long time, people thought emotions had no place in the business world; you’re either emotional or rational,” says Kristin Byron of Syracuse University. “That dichotomy doesn’t exist.”

Byron’s research has found that female managers who were better able to read emotions were rated by employees as more supportive and informational, and by supervisors as more effective.

…The rewards range from feeling wanted, trusted and liked to something more tangible: The office mom “makes people willing to go the extra mile, be more loyal to you,” says Carol Smith, senior vice president and chief brand officer of Elle Group. It can also pay off in terms of promotions, perks and pay.

But does this then relegate lower-level working girls to the job description Office Daughter?

“My boss gives me personal advice all the time,” notes 27 year-old Karen Granit, who works in sales for Godiva Chocolatier. “Because of that, I work harder for her not just because she’s my boss, but because I feel closer to her, more connected to her.”

And would we then feel compelled to add goodie-baker to our list of responsibilities?

Women, for example, more often than men, tend to value being accepted and will engage in behaviors like bringing goodies into the office. Smith notes that when it comes to cupcakes at weekly sales meetings, “It isn’t the guy who does the buying, you can be sure of that.”

And maybe that’s true. I myself have been known to enjoy a cupcake or two. (Hell, back when I worked at the Independent and noticed attendance dwindling at the weekly editorial meetings, I instituted a sage policy: treats. Someone different–men included–responsible for the sugar fix each week. Problem solved.) And I’ve been quick to point out that women and men are different, insisting that to recognize this shouldn’t be problematic.

But parts of Sinberg’s piece inspire the devil’s advocate in me. I wonder about boundaries between bosses who dispense personal advice and their underlings on the receiving end. I wonder about the pressure to prepare yet another batch of cupcakes. Might that of the perfect Office Mom become yet another iconic self, yet another thing at which we must be perfect, another ideal to which we must aspire? I wonder about this blurring of the lines, of making the office a home away from home–and what it means for work/life balance. And then there’s the issue of stereotypes: what, exactly, was the problem with the assertive working woman? That she wasn’t being true to who she was–or that it was simply too much of a stretch to ask the working public to deal with a woman who wasn’t “womanly”? Are we more down with the Office Mom because we expect women to kiss our boo-boos, to give us a cookie when we’ve been good?

On the other hand, though, according to Sinberg at least, the Office Mom isn’t taken less seriously because she isn’t hard-edged and cranky, she’s getting ahead because she isn’t. And if the Office Mom is someone who’s simply secure enough in who she is and her position that she can thumb her nose at everyone who wanted women to check their female-ness at the door and be who she is, then maybe this is all a healthy move forward.

Pass the cupcakes, please.

Read Full Post »

The fix is in, at least according to a piece in the Guardian entitled “If you only do one thing this week, stop talking about work at home.” So simple. And yet.

From the piece:

Sharing your working life with your partner can give you perspective, reassurance and a chance to offload, but banging on and on and on about the minutiae long after the working day is over can be counter productive.

When Cancer Research UK looked into modern relationships last year it found that 28% of us spent less than three hours with our partners each day, and that one in eight of us spent less than 10% of our time together conversing. So do you really want those precious conversations to be about the knackered photocopier?

Knackered. Doesn’t it make you wish you were a Brit? But apart from the envious slang, such a good point. Why do we bring work home? Either literally, watching a UCLA game with a stack of work in your lap to do in between plays (oops, did I type that out loud?) or figuratively, letting yammering about work suck the air out of the room, until you’re the only one left in it.

We’re acting like the boys.

Maybe we need the validation. Generationally new to this power world of work, do we need to prove that we’re one of the boys?  To identify ourselves with what we do — and bring it all home? Our male counterparts have done this for years. And the outcome? Not so great.

But back to the Guardian piece:

The trick is in accepting that we need to talk about work while learning to restrict the time we spend doing so. Switching off after hours is an important part of dealing with the stresses, strains and everyday irritations the workplace imposes on us. If the spectre of your annoying boss looms over your kitchen table just as he or she does your office desk then what’s the point in going home?

See, I think this is how we women can get it right. Embrace our differences, as Shannon pointed out yesterday. Realize that we are more than what we do. Smugly smile and note, as we stretch out after work, that kicking our pumps to the floor is one more sign that we as a gender have the capacity to get it right. Call it evolved.

Years back, I did a long magazine piece on the 60s hippie icon, Wavy Gravy. (The piece is so old, I can’t find a link.) You may remember him — apart from the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor — as the Clown Prince and Head of Security at Woodstock, famous for the line: “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” I profiled him in the late 80s, when he was living in a commune in Berkeley and up to his ears running a number of charities and non-profits, which took up all his waking hours.

At one point, I interviewed his wife, Jahanara, who said, somewhat ruefully, “Sometimes, you just want to play cards.”

Sometimes, you should.

Read Full Post »

Okay. So, in an op-ed that ran in Saturday’s New York Times, former Portfolio (the now defunct biz title from Conde Nast) editor Joanne Lipman lamented the place of women in society today. Sort of. After reading it several times, the best way I can describe it is not especially well thought-out. (With an impossible to explain reference to 9/11.) But apparently, I’m being far too kind. Lipman’s piece has been ripped apart by Jezebel, Gawker, and the NYTPicker. Each is entertaining, in its own special way, but Foster Kramer, a (male) writer at Gawker, goes for the jugular:

It’s inaccurate, intellectually offensive, and gratingly pompous… Lipman’s essay actually reads like a subversive ‘Portfolio failed not because I was at the top, but because a woman was at the top in a still very male-dominated world’ tome.

So hostile, Mr. Kramer. (For a saner take on the reported inaccuracies of Lipman’s piece, check out the NYTPicker.)

Regardless of Lipman’s own situation and the arguments in her piece (incohesive as they may be), the facts remain: by certain measures, the place of women in society today is indeed lamentable. We’ve covered that. Of course, considering how far we’ve come, it’s also pretty impressive. We’ve covered that, too. This post is about neither of the above.

And the us-versus-themming, the scrutiny to which a woman who puts herself out there makes herself a target, well, we’ve covered that, too.

And this post is about neither of those above, either.

What struck me as most interesting was an observation that none of the haters cared to hit upon, when Lipman wrote (after detouring into a mini-rant about women being portrayed as either “witches or bimbos, with pretty much no alternative in between”):

I’ve been puzzled by these screeds, which are so at odds with the real achievements documented in the Shriver Report and elsewhere. And then it struck me: Part of the reason we’ve lost our way, part of the reason my generation became complacent, is that many of us have been defining progress for women too narrowly. We’ve focused primarily on numbers at the expense of attitudes.

She then proceeds with the advice portion of the entertainment: ask for raises and promotions! have a sense of humor! and don’t be afraid to be ‘a girl’! By way of response to that, I’ll quote Jezebel’s Anna N, who enumerates the problems thus:

Yes, women could use workplace assertiveness training. And yes, teachers and parents should be raising girls to be active rather than passive, and not to expect “unrealistic perfection in every sphere, from beauty to housekeeping.” But why does the conversation about women and career advancement always have to be framed in terms of women asking for raises and promotions? I get that in today’s world it’s a necessary career skill, but a common critique of America’s educational system is that it values obedience and docility, qualities that supposedly come easier to girls than to boys. Parents and other advocates use this as evidence that the school system needs to be changed to be more male-friendly–but women are still expected to change to be more workplace-friendly. I don’t believe that boys are naturally less obedient, or women naturally less assertive. But we are still socialized differently, and the culture of many American workplaces is dominated by values developed and perpetuated by men–including self-promotion and aggressiveness. Again, plenty of women have these qualities in spades. But for those who don’t, why can’t workplace culture change to, say, reward hard work instead of repeated demands? Why do women always have to be the ones to budge?

She makes some good points. But there’s something there that doesn’t quite wash. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

But first: the place Lipman could have gone, the place I wish she would have gone, is where she started to go when she said this:

Women define success differently; for some it may be a career, for others the ability to stay home with children. They also define themselves differently. I’m in the unfortunate position of witnessing many friends and colleagues laid off over the past year. But the women are less apt to fall apart–and this goes even for the primary breadwinners–because they are less likely to define themselves by their job in the first place.

And I think that’s something to think about. (Okay, I’m busted–I’ve talked about this before, too.) As women, we are different. Not different bad or different good, just different. And I think a certain level of our frustration has come as a result of the fact that we’ve been loathe to own it. (And therein lies my beef with Jezebel’s Anna N.: reread that quote above, and notice how quick she is to back off.)

When we first began making inroads, we were necessarily preoccupied with breaking down barriers, gaining some level of acceptance, blending in. To focus on what makes us different would have been a risk–to concede a point or two to those who’d happily count it as ammunition in the “See, you don’t want to be in the boardroom, sweetheart. Wouldn’t you rather be at home making that nice tuna noodle casserole you do so well?”

But we’ve proven we can play their game. So why the reluctance now? Is to claim a difference necessarily to claim a weakness? Or is to do so to forfeit our feminist card? Or have we been brainwashed so thoroughly that we’ve allowed ourselves to remain blinded to what may be our biggest strength of all: The fact that we are different?

I love what Cristine Russell wrote in “Girls, Women and Double Dutch” Monday on The Atlantic‘s web site:

Perhaps it’s time to realize that achieving “equality” is an elusive goal. We are indeed making immense progress in women’s rights and opportunities, but the goal posts keep moving. They always will–and should. In fact, for most women, real progress is the journey, not the destination, in the experience of becoming a successful woman, regardless of your own definition of what constitutes success. It’s an ongoing, complicated conversation.

Ongoing, complicated conversation. I know a few women who are pretty good at that.

Read Full Post »

graduationOne of the problems with decisions is we sometimes make them before we’re ready. Sometimes we’ve forced ourselves into a box. Sometimes we entered that box with a skip and a smile. Sometimes it’s been a full-court press to please the iconic self. But as the saying goes (or did I make this up?): Decide in haste, repent in leisure. Quite possibly, a few years down the line, we’ll look over our shoulders, second guess ourselves, and wished we’d opted for Door Number One, wondering what for the love of God were we thinking.

I bring this up not because of that Hefty bag full of extremely unfortunate clothing I donated to the Good Will this weekend — but because I just came across a Newsweek essay (and cover story) advocating a three year college degree.

I vote no, as in Absolutely Not.

I can think of any number of reasons why the argument, proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, former education secretary under the first Pres. Bush, is an idea that stinks. But chief among them is the fact that making a choice that you won’t regret in the morning is often a function of growing up. Which is, in good part, the work of higher education.

But sure, I get it. Three years versus four means saving a boatload of money when it comes to tuition and living expenses. For the vast majority of students, it means a smaller debt load tucked into the diploma. For most kids, that’s crucial. And yet. An accelerated degree means choosing a path at, oh, age 18. (Think back to your adolescent self — would you really want that person to dictate your grown-up life? Gives me the willies just to think.) Then sticking hard to the program for three years without a taste of anything else, and jumping into the real world at just about the same time you’re legal to order your first martini.

Hmmm. Can you even qualify for a lease on an apartment at that age without your parents to co-sign? I digress.

But let’s back up. Sure, the plan could work for some students, those super-focused and dedicated souls who knew they wanted to be doctors or lawyers or engineers when they were five and never blinked. College in three? Done! Straight to grad school? Yes! And more power to them. But most of us? Not so focused. Where’s the time for exploration? Reflection? Discovering passions? Isn’t that part of what college is all about?

What I see here is a recipe for regret. Or a return ticket to university life some ten years down the line. Undecided? Here we come.

Read Full Post »

As it is in fortune cookies, so it is in women’s lives and the choices they face… which is to say that, while the greatest measurable strides we’ve made have been in the realm of work–even, perhaps, as a result of those strides–we’ve found ourselves stumped when it comes to the choices we face over personal stuff, too.

And I’m talking beyond the question of whether to be a stay at home mom or a working mom: I’m talking about whether to have kids at all, and love, and sex, and marriage, and divorce. And what women who’ve been there have been willing to say about it. And what women who haven’t been there yet think about the women who have been there–and what they say about it.

There was Lori Gottlieb’s widely publicized and ballyhooed essay in The Atlantic, entitled “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” in which a life spent holding out for something–or someone–that would meet her great expectations is told from the perspective of the now 40-something, single mother Gottlieb. (The baby daddy? A test tube.) She writes that, as she ages, she finds herself much more willing to settle for something less than fabulous–and advises younger women that the really smart thing to do is to just settle for the balding dude with dragon breath.

Take the date I went on last night. The guy was substantially older. He had a long history of major depression and said, in reference to the movies he was writing, “I’m fascinated by comas” and “I have a strong interest in terrorists.” He’d never been married. He was rude to the waiter. But he very much wanted a family, and he was successful, handsome, and smart. As I looked at him from across the table, I thought, Yeah, I’ll see him again. Maybe I can settle for that. But my very next thought was, Maybe I can settle for better. It’s like musical chairs–when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?

Then, on precisely the other end of the spectrum, there was Sandra Tsing Loh’s shockingly honest account of the end of her marriage, which included an offhand mention of the affair she had that precipitated it. She suggests that love has an expiration date, and that, in the face of having it all, the drudgery of reigniting that old, familiar flame seemed but a futile task on her already too-long list of To-Dos:

Do you see? Given my staggering working mother’s to-do list, I cannot take on yet another arduous home- and self-improvement project, that of rekindling our romance.

She introduces us to her friend Rachel, married to the seemingly perfect man (who hasn’t touched Rachel in over two years). One night over martinis, Rachel announces she, too, has been thinking divorce:

Rachel sees herself as a failed mother, and is depressed and chronically overworked at her $120,000-a-year job (which she must cling to for the benefits because Ian freelances). At night, horny and sleepless, she paces the exquisite kitchen, gobbling mini Dove bars. The main breadwinner, Rachel is really the Traditional Dad, but instead of being handed her pipe and slippers at six, she appears to be marooned in a sexless remodeling project with a passive-aggressive Competitive Wife.

…In any case, here’s my final piece of advice: avoid marriage–or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.

Whew. Between she and Gottleib, it certainly seems that we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

And then there was Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, who, at the wise old age of 42, recently lamented the loss of her looks, her loneliness, and the years she spent fleeing commitment, sabotaging stability, believing she’d always have options (and a wrinkle-free face). In the piece for Elle, a longer version of which will soon arrive at bookstores near you, Wurtzel writes:

The idea of forever with any single person, even someone great whom I loved so much like Gregg, really did seem like what death actually is: a permanent stop. Love did not open up the world like a generous door, as it should to anyone getting married; instead it was the steel clamp of the iron maiden, shutting me behind its front metal hinge to asphyxiate slowly, and then suddenly. Every day would be the same forever: The body, the conversation, it would never change–isn’t that the rhythm of prison?

Reader, she cheated on him.

(Primetime television’s answer to the mature modern woman’s romantic conundrum? Cougar Town.)

I remember reading each of these women’s stories, and bring them up because they were recently culled together into a piece by 25 year-old Irina Aleksander in the New York Observer, entitled “The Cautionary Matrons.” In it, Aleksander writes:

Our mothers and grandmothers seemed to have sound instructions. But now–now that the generation of women ahead of us has begun to sound regretful, shouting at us, “Don’t end up like me!”–what we have instead are Cautionary Matrons, issuing what feel like incessant warnings.

Single 40-something women warn us about being too career-oriented and forgetting to factor in children; married women warn us that marriage is a union in which sex and fidelity are optional; and divorced women warn us to keep our weight down, our breasts up and our skin looking like Saran Wrap unless we want our husbands to later leave us for 23 year-olds.

While her take is entertaining, the quotes she includes are downright spooky: though our own context might not be the same, the sentiments are quite possibly universal. Too many choices–and opportunity cost, when picking one means you necessarily can’t have the others.

From Gottlieb, to Aleksander:

The article was like I was someone’s big sister and I was saying here’s my experience and all of the misconceptions I had… I think you guys are actually lucky because you’ll get a more mixed set of messages. When I was in my 20s, women were all about having it all and ‘a guy is great but he is not the main course.’ We got a single message and it was all, me, me, me, me, me. ‘You go girl!’ And now those of us that grew up with these messages are finally admitting that those messages of empowerment may actually conflict with what we want.

And leave it to Tsing Loh to be so candid it will make you cringe, cry, and chuckle:

[Tsing Loh] speculated about the reason for this apparent surge in matronly warnings: ‘I think because we’re really surprised!’ she screamed into the receiver. ‘In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren’t going to be ’50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers, and there were all these interesting guys out there not like our dads. We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices and that’s why we’re writing these pieces. We’re shocked!’

‘It must be very confusing,’ she said sympathetically. ‘We were the proteges of old-guard feminists: ‘Don’t have a baby, or if you must, have one, wait till your 40s.’ We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys… Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they’re canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet. You just have a bunch of drunk, depressed, 45-year-old ladies going, ‘A-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH.’

Again, whew.

Aleksander goes on, recounting a conversation she had with a friend about the subject:

‘They are the first generation of women who were presented with choices,’ she said. ‘I think they are in the process of reflecting on a half-century of existence and are realizing that ‘having it all’ was really a lie. Sometimes I think the idea of ‘having it all’ can almost be more disempowering than ‘having it all’ because one is never allowed enough time or energy to excel in one area of their life.’

Choices. Uncharted territory. It looks to me like yet another mirror of our whole thesis: with so many options, is it ever possible not to second-guess ourselves? to wonder about the road not traveled? to worry that the grass is greener? to find yourself paralyzed in the face of all that analysis? When do you just take a seat, any seat? And, with all the seats out there, is it ever possible to be content with the seat we’ve chosen?

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful that one day, we’ll find the answer.

In bed.

Read Full Post »

Just when you’re ready to drop an F-bomb, there’s this: Lesley Stahl’s interview of New York Times columnist Gail Collins, whose new book “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of Women from 1960 to the Present” reminds us of how far we’ve come in the past 50 years. And makes us smile along the route.

Yeah, yeah, we’ve got a ways to go. You’ve read that in this space multiple times: The institutions haven’t changed the way we wanted. There are still some Neanderthals walking among us. Work-life balance, still a pipe dream. Women are still penalized on the job for hopping on and off the career track to care for their kids. And most pressing for the undecided among us, we still can’t get the hang of dealing with all our newfound options. Still, as a reminder of the starting gate, Collins offers these two anecdotes, circa 1960. Better sit down.

Lois Rabinowitz was a secretary in Manhattan and in the summer of 1960 made history, or at least headlines, when she was expelled from traffic court in Manhattan for attempting to pay a parking ticket while wearing slacks. And the judge went nuts. She was defaming the honor of the traffic court. And this was true, and so many women I’ve talked to who remembered back on those days, how awful it was. If you worked in the Post Office you had to wear a skirt. And it was extremely uncomfortable; extremely cold for some women. And just the right to wear sensible clothes was completely withheld.

And then there is the executive express, the plane flight United used to have from New York to Chicago every day, and it was men only; a woman could not buy a seat on the executive express – too bad if you wanted to go to Chicago at that point in time. And they would serve the men these big, huge steaks and cigars and the stewardesses were taught how to lean over and light the cigars and so on. And whenever I tell that story somebody says, “Well wasn’t that illegal?” Nothing was illegal back then. It was perfectly legal to say, “Well we don’t hire women for those jobs,” or as Newsweek used to say, “Women don’t write. They only research.”

They only research? Lesley Stahl had a story of her own:

There was a little incident … in ‘74. I was going to anchor on election night, the first time a woman was going to do that, and I was very nervous. My boss brought me around when they were building the set to show me that it was cozy and wonderful, and he said, “You shouldn’t be nervous because you’ll be in a little circle.” And he said, “Walter will be sitting right there.” And in front of his place it said “Cronkite.” And he said, “Roger will be there,” and it said “Mudd.” And, “Mike will be there.” It said “Wallace.” And he said, “You’ll be there.” And it said “Female.”
And my boss almost had a heart attack, he was so mortified and embarrassed. But my reaction in those days was to laugh, because the truth is – and I think all my friends my age who came in to work, and it’s not just journalism, I would say this anywhere – we were just so thrilled that they let us in the door, and that we were allowed to cover politics, or allowed to do an operation, or allowed to try a case in a courtroom. In those first early days it was just so exciting that they let us in the door …

Puts things in perspective, no? At the top of the interview, Collins said that, as far as the Women’s Movement is concerned, and despite all that’s left to do, we’ve won. Here’s her explanation:

I mean that in 1960 the vision of women’s limitations of the proper role for women in society was not at bottom much different than it was, say, in 1200 or 1600, but there was the same vision of what women were, and what women could do, that existed throughout Western civilization. And it changed in my lifetime and your lifetime, Lesley, in this tiny sliver of time that we live in. And that knocks me out every time I think about it. Women being born today are going to have all kinds of problems, many of them having to do with trying to balance family and career, I will tell you, but that kind of sense of limitations that existed throughout civilization and society just is not there for them. And that’s so huge…

At one point, Stahl asks Collins if one of the reasons she wrote the book was to familiarize younger women, who are loathe to use the F-word, with the roots of feminism.

There’s something about that word “feminism,” I must say, that’s always been a problem. This is not just our generation. Even back in the ’20s women were writing that there was something about the word “feminism” that suggested bad shoes or something. So I’m not totally convinced that just because young women don’t want to be called feminist that that means they’re not sympathetic to female solidarity, or interested in their own history. But it is true that everybody in America’s sense of history is not what it might be. But they have their own stories and the fact that they grow into the world, that they come into the world, thinking that, just as a matter of fact, “Well of course I’m going to go to work, and of course I’m going to do whatever I think I want to do, and of course if I want to be a doctor I’m going to be a doctor, and of course if I want to be an astronaut I’ll be an astronaut.” The fact that they’re so confident that these things will happen, or can happen, for them is not entirely a bad thing…

But back to those bad shoes. Stahl brings up the fact that women have gone from stilettos to sensible shoes — and now back again to spike heels. She say she loves it. Got it, says Collins:

And, you know, we’ll never get around that. There are just some things that became clear to me as I was doing the research, that are walls you are never going to climb over, and separating women from really ridiculous but incredibly sexy shoes is one of those.

I’m with ya, sister.

Read Full Post »

We’ve all seen the headlines: college students are increasingly entertaining the idea of moving back in with mom and dad. According to the U.S. Census in 2008, 5 million Americans aged 25 to 35 are living with their parents. A CollegeGrad.com survey found that:

Among 2009 U.S. college graduates, 80 percent moved back home with their parents after graduation, up from 77 percent in 2008, 73 percent in 2007, and 67 percent in 2006.

And no one’s disputing the spreadsheet-sanctioned benefits of doing so: the job market sucks; the ‘rents will likely hook you up with free food and cable. The economic reality can appear to be a vast expanse of No Choices At All. But consider this, from the press release announcing those survey results on collegegrad.com:

According to the CollegeGrad.com poll, nearly 70 percent of recent grads did not have jobs lined up when they graduated. The job market is certainly competitive, but Ogunwole believes there’s an additional dynamic getting in the way of some graduates’ employment: unreasonable expectations.

“Many recent graduates are turning down good job offers, holding out for better jobs and salaries in the belief that a college degree entitles them to more than entry level,” says Ogunwole. “In today’s job market, that’s just not realistic.”

Undone by great expectations?

But I think, sometimes, there’s even more to it. And a piece from yesterday on Time.com provides an extreme (this 40-something “boomerang” girl’s husband left her for a man he met on Gay.com; she crashed her car; her parents are Mennonite) example of what I’m talking about.

A little background:

When Rhoda Janzen went away to college, she was determined to leave her past behind. But unlike the average independence-minded freshman, Janzen was Mennonite–a member of a small, strict Christian denomination with only 110,000 members in the U.S. She went on to earn a Ph.D. from UCLA and became an English professor. But in 2006, at age 43, a personal crisis sent her back to her Mennonite roots in Fresno, Calif.

Janzen has written a book about the experience, called Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, and spoke with TIME reporter Andrea Sachs about the experience.

Sachs: So what was it like when you first went back?

Janzen: I had expected to sleep in, hole up out of self-pity, but my mother was so busy and cheerful that I didn’t have time for any of that. The very first morning, when I was still jet-lagged, she stuck her head into my old bedroom and said, “You want to help me make pie-by-the-yard? I picked up a big bag of Granny Smiths!” I found it comforting to snap back into old patterns, with my mom presiding over the kitchen in her safari apron. Trailing one’s 70 year-old parents around town is an excellent and under-discussed cure for heartbreak.

Granted, that is an extreme example. But I think she hits on something pretty universal: there’s a certain level of comfort in a life where choices are simply trumped by routine. And I think that’s a dirty little secret lurking behind some of the numbers that make up this trend: the big wide world can be scary–it’s vast, unfamiliar, and uncharted. Making your own way in the world is always hard, but picking which way to go can be even harder.

When we’re students, we play like we’re adults, but our options don’t really amount to much more than multiple choice. Soc 101 or Anthro 64? Two roommates or four? Keg or cans? We could plot our answers on a ScanTron. Then, one day, we’re handed a piece of paper and sent on our way–into the wild bluebook yonder. And nothing’s scarier than an empty Blue Book. But sometimes, in lieu of an outline, the familiar taste of mom’s apple pie can make a fine substitute.

Read Full Post »

A funny thing happened on the way to the internet today. First I ran across Time Magazine’s special report on the “State of the American Women”. And then I read an LA Times interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial author of Infidel: My Life.

Ali was born into a Somali Muslim family and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she wrote the screenplay for a film about women’s treatment under Islam. There’s much more to her story, but to cut to the chase: Theo van Gogh, the filmmaker, was killed shortly after the film aired, and Ali has been under threat of death by Islamic fundamentalists ever since. She now lives under guard in the U.S., and works for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Two different views of the women’s movement: the first, how far we’ve come. The second, what we’ve ignored. Another wake up call? Put the two together and it helps you put your own private angst in perspective.

But let’s start with TIME. In the lead essay, Nancy Gibbs provides an overview of a survey on gender issues conducted by TIME and the Rockefeller Foundation. Gibbs tracked our progress — and the work ahead:

In 1972 only 7% of students playing high school sports were girls; now the number is six times as high. The female dropout rate has fallen in half. College campuses used to be almost 60-40 male; now the ratio has reversed, and close to half of law and medical degrees go to women, up from fewer than 10% in 1970. Half the Ivy League presidents are women, and two of the three network anchors soon will be; three of the four most recent Secretaries of State have been women. There are more than 145 foundations designed to empower women around the world, in the belief that this is the greatest possible weapon against poverty and disease; there was only one major foundation (the Ms. Foundation) for women in 1972. For the first time, five women have won Nobel Prizes in the same year (for Medicine, Chemistry, Economics and Literature). We just came through an election year in which Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Tina Fey and Katie Couric were lead players, not the supporting cast. And the President of the United States was raised by a single mother and married a lawyer who outranked and outearned him.

It is still true that boardrooms and faculty clubs and legislatures and whole swaths of professions like, say, hedge-fund management remain predominantly male; women are about 10% of civil engineers and a third of physicians and surgeons but 98% of kindergarten teachers and dental assistants, and they still earn 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. They are charged higher premiums for health insurance yet still have greater out-of-pocket expenses for things as basic as contraception and maternity care. At times it seems as if the only women effortlessly balancing their jobs, kids, husbands and homes are the ones on TV.

Still, Gibbs ends by implying that those gender wars? So over. At least if you are American and middle class.

All the shapes in the puzzle are shifting. If there is anything like consensus on an issue as basic as how we live our lives as men and women, as lovers, parents, partners, it’s that getting the pieces of modern life to fit together is hard enough; something has to bend. Equal numbers of men and women report frequent stress in daily life, and most agree that government and businesses have failed to adjust to the changes in the family. As the Old Economy dissolves before our eyes, men and women express remarkably similar life goals when asked about the importance of money, health, jobs and family. If male jobs keep vanishing, if physical strength loses its workplace value, if the premium shifts ever more to education, in which achievement is increasingly female, then we will soon be having parallel conversations: What needs to be done to free American men to realize their full potential? You can imagine the whole conversation flipping in a single generation.

It’s no longer a man’s world. Nor is it a woman’s nation. It’s a cooperative, with bylaws under constant negotiation and expectations that profits be equally shared.

Our work here is done? Well, not quite. But we’re getting there, according to another TIME essay by Maria Shriver. In “The Unfinished Revolution,” she first reflects on what she learned from her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a road warrior for the role of smart and independent women in American society. Stepping back into her role as journalist, Shriver talked to women across the country and found them incredibly stressed about their families, their finances and work-life balance.

While there’s much to cheer about these days on the equality front, we still have a long way to go. Women still don’t make as much as men do for the same jobs. The U.S. still is the only industrialized nation without a child-care policy. Women are still being punished by a tax code designed when men were the sole breadwinners and women the sole caregivers. Sexual violence against women still is a huge issue. Women still are disproportionately affected by a lack of health-care services. And lesbian couples and older women are among the poorest segments of our society.

Which brings me back to my mother. I know for sure that if she were alive today, she’d say of this report, “It’s about time!” In articles published after her death, so many people were quoted as saying, “If only Eunice had been a man, she could have been President!” “If only.” My mother learned from that. Her message to women was “Don’t let society tame you or contain you.” Today she could run for President. And I believe she would win.

Well, then. Kinda makes you want to slap yourself on the back and hum the iconic advertising jingle — “You’ve come a long way, Baby” — that once linked feminism to skinny cigarettes. Until, that is, you juxtapose TIME’s assessment of women’s progress with Ali’s view — the LA Times piece was entitled “Feminism’s Freedom Fighter”. From the interview:

Will any country ever go to war for rights and women’s safety?

It looks like it will not happen. But I am very, very optimistic — not about going to war but about human beings changing their minds. You’ll remember how communism was stigmatized. The big problem is [how] to define the protection of women’s rights as the problem of the 21st century. If the world does that, [women’s inequality] will become like the eradication of apartheid — people will insist that it’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and that’s when change happens.

What changes people?

I’ll give you an example. The Sudanese woman who decided to wear trousers, and when the world rallied to her support, she doesn’t get the lashes. It is this kind of unbending persistence. Human trafficking — girls kidnapped and then forced into prostitution — that is economic exploitation. That can be eradicated by going after the traffickers, by providing education and eradicating poverty. Where women are put in veils, where their genitals are cut, where there’s “honor killing,” where half the population may not go outside without a male guardian — that cannot be dealt with only by talking about poverty. You have to tackle those principles.

We fight for flex-time. She fights against honor killings. Made me think. You?

Read Full Post »

There’s this charming story, about a Zen student and his teacher, trying to impart the lesson of mindfulness. “When drinking tea,” the teacher told his student, “just drink tea.”

How often do you just drink tea?

Such a beautifully simple idea. Be Here Now. Focus. Breathe. So quaint… and yet, so hopelessly impossible. At the moment, I have not less than seven other windows open on my computer. Among them: two email accounts, Facebook, Twitter. My cell phone is to my right; my land line receiver to my left. I have a load of laundry in the washing machine, and am trying to determine what to have for dinner as I write this.

Oh, I’m also drinking tea.

I know I’m not the exception. We spend our days assaulted by information, stimulation, texts, tweets, pings, and rings. So I listened with special interest when I came across this edition of NPR’s On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook summarizes the show thus:

Americans love to be horrified by multitasking. Well, some Americans. For many younger Americans, it’s just life. Especially “media multitasking.” Phoning, texting, reading, tweeting, with a movie on the laptop, a video chat in the corner, IM on the side. And–God forbid–maybe driving, too.

A new study out of Stanford seems to confirm the worst fears about multitasking–that in the midst of the “multi,” nothing gets done well. This hour, we’ll talk with an author of that study–and with two twenty-somethings who say it’s just life.

While the debate over how much we’re able to do well at once is an interesting one–because, at least in part, it hits all of us where we live–it’s also kind of moot. To varying degrees, the multitasking is a given. And, regardless of how much is actually a given, the assumption is that, in life, multitasking is as certain as death and taxes. (See: any media portrayal of life in the modern world.)

In a way, it all reminds me of that evil old ad, the one that celebrated the success of the women’s movement by singing that we can bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan. (Don’t touch that dial: point is coming, soon.) Well, yes. We can. But between all that’s required to bring it home and fry it up, do we ever get a second to stop and think? Or, more to the point, to stop and feel: are we enjoying bringing it home? Are we enjoying frying it up? Do we have enough psychic space available to even notice how it smells as it’s cookin’, let alone how it tastes?

That sent my mind back to spinning on all the multitasking we do a little bit more. Consider: For all the lip service we pay to the importance of finding our passion, with our attention splintered among all the things crying out for it, how do we even know if we’re actually enjoying something? And might this fractured consciousness have a little something to do with why we’re so damn angsty in the face of big life decisions? It’s hard enough to make a truly informed decision. But how can we feel adequately informed if we can’t focus, if we can’t  just drink the tea?

Oh, and that tea? The end of the story might make you feel a little bit better. One day, that Zen student whose teacher told him to just drink tea discovered his teacher, drinking tea and reading the paper. When confronted, the teacher said, “When drinking tea and reading the paper, just drink tea and read the paper!”


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »