Archive for July, 2011

Surely you have heard that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted to reinstate the Global Gag Rule that prevents any family planning agencies that provide information about abortion service from receiving any U.S. foreign aid.

Who gets hurt?  Women, children and anyone who believes the conversation about women’s issues needs to move forward.

But once again, that conversation has been hijacked by the right-wing strategy to frame deeper issues related to women and families in terms of a women’s right to choose.  For a refresher, let’s look at the vote by Michele Bachmann and others on the right to defund Planned Parenthood — even though abortions only make up 10 percent of the services it provides to women without other means of health care, and that abortion services receive no federal funding.  As we wrote before:

I know of one woman, in fact, whose life may have been saved by Planned Parenthood. She discovered a lump in her breast shortly after losing her work-related health insurance. Where did she turn for a mammogram? Yep, Planned Parenthood, which ultimately shepherded her through the scary process of not only the diagnostics, but ultimately surgery, chemo and radiation.

The Global Gag Rule has been the ball in a decades-long — and ugly — game of political ping-pong since Ronald Reagan was in office.  Here’s a little bit of the backstory, courtesy of the Center for American Progress:

The global gag rule—first instated by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, rescinded by President Bill Clinton in 1993, re-imposed by President George W. Bush in 2001, and rescinded again by President Barack Obama in 2009—prevents U.S. family planning assistance from going to organizations that perform or provide information about or referrals to legal abortion services. What’s more, organizations that receive funds cannot use their own money to provide abortion-related information or services, or advocate for liberalized abortion laws. The rule imposes no similar restrictions on advocacy against such laws. When in force, the global gag rule comes on top of the Helms amendment, the 1973 law that prohibits direct U.S. funding of abortions overseas.

Under the global gag rule, these organizations face a choice: either participate in the American right’s global campaign to restrict women’s rights and access to reproductive health care or lose critical U.S. funding.

That funding is crucial for agencies that cover a number of issues related to healthy women and children.  Like clean water.  Sanitation. The current rule, which primarily affects women in developing nations, is even more draconian than George W. Bush’s version, which at least made an exemption for HIV/AIDS education.  This new iteration of the rule does not.  But there’s more.  What also gets cut out of the equation when these agencies are defunded is access to contraception.  Back to the Center for American Progress:

And there is clear evidence that access to family planning improves women’s health and overall well-being. Maternal mortality rates see significant reductions when women can control the timing and spacing of their pregnancies. Access to family planning can help women avoid the pregnancy-related complications some 15 million women confront every year. And when women have the resources to control their fertility, they can take advantage of educational and economic opportunities that benefit not only women but their families and communities as well.

Ironically, the Guttmacher Institute has found that when abortion becomes illegal, abortions don’t decrease — they just become dangerous.  Life-threatening, actually. And what better way to avoid abortions than to provide contraceptive services.  No brainer, right? Go figure. (In fact, here in the U.S., the Institute of Medicine recently came out with guidelines that urge health insurance under the Affordable Care Act to include FDA approved contraception as preventative care.  Why? Proper spacing of pregnancies can prevent a host of serious health risks for both mother and child.)

But what makes us even more angry is the way the debate on abortion sucks the energy out of the fight for a better world for women and children — here and abroad.  Suddenly, regardless of where we stand on a women’s right to choose, we’re in a defensive position.

And that’s important because it means they control the conversation. Our attention spans are shorter, we live in a soundbyte society, and so there’s no room for nuanced discussion. Point, counterpoint.  And when we’re on the defensive, there’s no space to speak to other issues, let alone attempt to reframe the whole conversation.

We’re gagged, in more ways than one.

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All of the hullaballoo about Summers Eve’s latest ad campaign (you know, the one that hails the “V”? Ironic, when you consider that the product for which the ad in question shills is one that disturbs a healthy V’s natural, self-regulating biology, one that’s counter-indicated by medicine, and one that carries the implicit message that your body, as it is, is bad. Hail the V? My A__. Oh, and those ads are racist, too), has left me obsessing over a bigger issue, one that has nothing to do with douche.

The aforementioned bigger issue is this: how these glossy messages of “empowerment” hijack and cheapen the conversation about what it is to be a woman, diverting our collective attention from important conversations and messages that could be truly empowering. So often, it seems that we’re terrified of the nuance, the deeper, more complicated questions, and so we attach ourselves to a quick, slick slogan. Girl Power, served up by a woman who calls herself Baby Spice? Or, as Rebecca Traister so eloquently explained in a piece in Sunday’s NYT Mag, a raucous call for an end to victim-blaming… while marching a “SlutWalk” in our underwear?

Don’t get me wrong: We’re all for Girl Power, and an end to the hideous pattern of victim-blaming that continues to rage against survivors of sexual assault. And we’re pretty fond of our Vs. But what about the rest of us? What about the feminine aspect, that je ne sais quoi that makes women women?

I can hear those knees jerking already!

When you say men and women are different, surely that must mean that one or the other is deficient: that’s a message used to denigrate women! The brain science is inconclusive! Gender is different than sex!

To discuss the feminine as something real, something distinct, yes, different even, well it’s still perceived as dangerous. Threatening. Historically, it makes a certain amount of sense, of course. Plotted against a timeline of the modern workplace, women are still relatively new to the game. It made sense that, upon our initial entree, our strategy was to blend in, to play like the boys, even to look like them (one word: shoulderpads). We downplayed our differences, fearing that if men smelled fear, insecurity, or Chanel #5, we’d be at an immediate disadvantage. Or maybe kicked out of the club for good. But isn’t it possible that every time we choose not to own our own womanness — and all the differences inherent to that womanness, like empathy, inclusiveness, compassion, collaboration, holistic thinking — we do ourselves and our gender (hell, humankind) as a whole a disservice? After all, isn’t there something more essential, more divine to being a woman than simple possession of a V?

They’re valuable qualities (and frankly, whether they’re born of nature or nurture… does it really matter?). And men possess them, too. But  in our culture, it’s those more traditional masculine qualities — linear thinking, assertiveness, individualism — that are prized. So, while men leave their feminine untended, women are all too often taught to shy away from their own. All of which leaves humanity as a whole operating in a rather lopsided fashion. But what if we could allow room for both to thrive?

It’s complicated to get at, though. We like proof in these parts, and the science remains controversial. Suggesting that women and men are different is too vague. Invites too many fears. (It’s proven, after all, that women perform worse on math tests when they’re told they’re being given the tests as a measure of how women are at math, compared to men.) And maybe that’s why these sorts of silly V-power messages fly. Real conversations are too risky. We’re too afraid that by honestly exploring a more complex idea, we might inadvertently give up some ground. But if we could begin to see this conversation as necessary and beneficial — for everyone, not just women, but men, too, who could use a little encouragement in terms of awakening to and cultivating their own feminine sides — maybe we would all benefit.

So, hail to the feminine — and the masculine, too.

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This just in: Men are as miserable as women. At least that’s what we learn from a new study by Arizona State professor Chris M. Herbst, who suggests that men’s happiness has taken as big a dive as women’s over the past several years.

We think that’s good news.

Back in 2009, Penn economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published ground-breaking research that sent the interwebs atwitter. Titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” the study found that while, 35 years ago or so, women reported being happier than men, today women–regardless of marital or employment status or whether or not they have kids–report being unhappier than men.

At which point, the pundits swarmed: Was the women’s movement — responsible for ushering women out of the kitchen and into the workplace — to blame for this happiness gap? Were women themselves at fault for not taking proper care of themselves? There must be something wrong with you if you’re not happy, the media howled. Blame yourself! Blame feminism! Blame your choices! Whatever you do, don’t assume it’s the rational response to life itself or to a workplace that has not changed to accommodate the new reality: though women represent close to half of the workforce, the workplace still operates like a set from “Mad Men”as if the ideal employee is one with Betty Draper at home to take care of business.

Back to Herbst’s study: Not content to let women own their own funk, he used a different measure of well-being — happiness is notoriously hard to measure, if not define — to find that men’s life satisfaction had not only declined as much as women’s over the past two decades, but had gone south even more rapidly than women’s in recent years:

Men and women have also experienced comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported health. In a further departure from [Stevenson and Wolfers] results, I find that although the downward trend in life satisfaction became less severe for men and women over time, the slowdown occurred more aggressively among women. As a result, men’s life satisfaction began to fall more precipitously than that for women beginning in the late-1980s.

He suggests the reason may be a combination of several factors based on the erosion in social and civic engagement — coupled with economic insecurity.

Maybe so, but we think there’s something else at play. Because we’re optimists, we tend to think that all of this declining happiness business may be a sign of something positive: gender roles are shifting, and we — men and women alike — are working through the growing pains. As men begin to share more of the second shift in our dual-career families, are they also sharing more of the angst? And will that lead to positive change?

A new study out of the Families and Work Institute seems to suggest yes. According to “The New Male Mystique,” released last month, as gender roles have begun to shift—men’s stress over work-and-family conflict has increased. Last year, we interviewed Ellen Galinsky, President of the Institute and an author of the report, for our book and she told us that preliminary data on increasing stress levels among men suggested that the idea of work–life fit might move out of the pink ghetto and start being framed as change that benefits all of us.

Some might snipe that it’s time already that men feel the conflict too. But Galinsky believes that, as the generation of men who are (or who expect to be) more involved at home climb the ranks, they’re likely to be more amenable to family-friendly policies. She said her studies find that when supervisors—regardless of age or gender—have responsibilities for kids or elders, they are seen as more supportive of work–life policies, because, said Galinsky, “when you go through it yourself, typically you feel different about it.

What’s more, she told us, when men as well as women leave work to pick up kids—or if dad does the drop-off at the onsite daycare center— the stigma, and that maternal wall, starts to go away. “In an ideal world,” Galinsky said, “work would work for you and your employer, and there are some policies that would help you do that, but where the rubber hits the road is how your supervisor and coworkers treat you. You can work at a company that has fantastic policies, or live in a country that has fantastic policies, and you can still have a horrible situation. There has to be a culture where people value personal and family time.”

All of which goes to the heart of what’s often left out of studies of satisfaction and well-being: what has been dubbed a personal issue is really a political one. Maybe instead of kvetching about who’s happier than whom, what we ought to be talking about is changes in workplace structures and public policy.

And wouldn’t that just make all of us just a little bit more, you know, happy?

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When it comes to the way we choose to live our lives, how free is our will, really… and how much has to do with the way mom lived hers?

I got to musing on this particular question after reading an interview in the Guardian with both Erica Jong–author, writer, sexual revolutionary and coiner of the term “zipless f*ck”–and her daughter Molly Jong-Fast, a self-described prude. Who else but the daughter of Erica Jong would choose that word, of all words, to describe herself?

The piece was tied to the recent release of “Sugar in My Bowl,” an anthology of sexual memoir edited by Erica Jong, and to which her daughter Molly contributed an essay. It’s title? “They had sex so I didn’t have to.”

It’s the Alex P. Keaton effect: the character, from the 80s sitcom Family Ties, was the eldest son of hippie parents. He wore a three-piece suit at all times, and loved Ronald Reagan as much as he loved the smell of money. I have a friend whose story is similar: she spent several years of her childhood on an ashram in India, returning to the San Francisco Bay Area where her home was often the meeting place for her mother’s meditation group. She told me recently about how, growing up, all she wanted was to shop at Talbots.

Rebellion, of course, is a natural–and healthy–part of growing up, individuation in psychological speak. The more extreme the circumstances of our upbringing, the more extreme our rebellion may in fact be. And the pendulum of social norms tends to swing from one end to the other, from generation to generation, too. Here’s a bit from the Guardian article:

Molly maps out the gulf between young and old in more detail in her essay, writing that while her mother grew up in a culture where sex was secretive and tightly tied to marriage, she grew up in a sex-obsessed era, with Britney Spears, for instance, constantly on-screen, ‘pulsating in a bikini, musing on her virginity.’ They each reacted against their circumstances, and against the mores of the previous generation–as did many of their peers. As Erica writes in her 1994 memoir, Fear of Fifty, ‘rebelling generations follow quiescent ones, quiescent ones follow rebelling ones and the world goes on as it always has.’

As it is across generations, might it be across the individuals that make up the generational branches of a family tree?

It’s contrary to the conventional wisdom that assures us that, with or without our consent, eventually, we will become our mothers. Which, upsetting though that may be to some, makes perfect sense: in addition to the matter of shared DNA, there’s also the fact that, in all likelihood, our mother was the person with whom we spent the bulk of our formative years. (Likely the very reasons the relationship is so notoriously intense.) And many of us do emulate our mothers. And yet: whether we model mom or the anti-mom, well, mom’s got top billing.

Maybe it seems too trite, too reductionist, too Freudian. Maybe Molly and my Talbots-coveting friend and the rest of us are just out to become our own people, making sexual or sartorial choices based on who we are as individuals, without giving any thought to what mom would do.

But. Even for an extreme case like that of the Jongs, it seems that some similarities are downright inescapable. The essay leaves the reader with the impression that mother and daughter are two sides of the same coin: hilarious, outspoken, confident–just with different views on stuff. (And whether those similarities are due to nature or nurture, does it really matter?) And sometimes, even the stuff falls into line: That friend of mine spent last Thanksgiving at a silent retreat, subsisting on raw juices and enjoying morning colonics.

And my mom and I? I fought becoming a writer–though that was exactly what I’d always wanted to do–for as long as I could, thinking it lame to just blindly follow along in mom’s footsteps. And yet. We spent the last two years of our lives writing a book… together.

So not only are we both writers, clearly we’re both insane.

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The new buzzword is “He-covery”. That’s the term the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell  and others use to characterize the new numbers on our so-called economic recovery. Cute the way we use gender terms to nickname serious issues, isn’t it?

In case you’ve forgotten, the recession was dubbed the “mancession,” because the menfolk had lost the majority of the jobs, leading to a workplace that was finally gender-equal.  But, as a new report from the Pew Center has shown, since the recovery started, men have picked up some three-quarters of a million jobs.  Their sisters have lost close to a quarter of a million. Welcome back to the gender gap: Pew found that men “have fared better than women in all but one of 16 major sectors of the economy identified in this report.” Here’s a taste:

The recovery from the Great Recession is not off to a good start for women. From June 2009, when the recession ended, to May 2011, women have lost 218,000 jobs, with their employment level falling from 65.1 million to 64.9 million. Men, however, are finding new jobs in the recovery. Their employment level increased from 65.4 million in June 2009 to 66.1 million in May 2011, a gain of 768,000 jobs. Since 1970, this is the first two-year period into an economic recovery in which women have lost jobs even as men have gained them.

Now, the easy explanation would be to assume that job growth is occurring in the, you know, manly sector: construction, mining, manufacturing, the heavy-lifting kinds of jobs.  But what’s curious here is that men are also outscoring women in retail, professional and business services, education and health services (traditionally a female domain), hospitality and the federal government.  And when it comes to jobs lost, men have also won the jackpot, losing fewer jobs than women in utilities, information services and finance.

What gives? Pew can’t figure out the explanation for the gender discrepancy, and neither can anyone else. But what I wonder is whether we’re simply unwilling to suggest that the emperor has no clothes.  If women are losing ground even in traditionally female sectors, isn’t it possible there’s a little bit of gender discrimination at play? There I’ve said it. Mea culpa.

As one quick example, let’s look at the maternal wall:  studies have shown that women are penalized and considered less promotable because of family committments.   As University of Illinois management professor Jenny Hoobler found, this holds true even when women have no kids — and don’t plan on having any.  We interviewed Hoobler for our book, and here’s what she told us:

[Her study showed] “this lingering stereotype that women aren’t as dedicated to their careers because they are or will at some point take the primary responsibility for caregiving in the family.  What we found was that even when women did not have did not have children, did not have an elderly parent to care for, didn’t have a sick spouse, their bosses still felt  that they had higher conflict between the family and work than their male counterparts did.

“People think that this is something that has gone away. I think there is a misconception when you are talking about workers with kids that male and female parents share equally the responsibilities for the home but many research studies have shown recently that that is not the case.  While men are doing a lot more that their fathers did a generation ago, in dual career families, women are bearing the lion’s share of the caring of people in the home.  But what our study showed was that even when women DID NOT have those responsibilities, their bosses felt that they still did.”

We also found a study on fathers showing that, conversely, having a baby enhanced their self-image at work, in terms of reputation, credibility and even career options. He became a family man, as in “What a guy”!

Now I would be the last to suggest that the reason for the so-called He-covery is the fact that, all things being equal, empl0yers prefer men over women and hire accordingly. Nor would any boss cop to that. But it makes you think, right?  And the irony is that, at 77 cents on the dollar, women are good for the bottom line.

And even when we women made up half of the workforce, we were hardly taking home half of the pay. As The Nation’s Katha Pollitt wrote, back in 2009, when women first achieved workplace parity:

It is indeed remarkable that women are half the workforce, but there’d be more to cheer about if they also earned an equal share of the pay. It may be easier to find a job as a home health aide than a welder, but male jobs tend to pay a lot more than female ones (and, one might add, do not involve a lot of deferential smiling).

Deferential smiling. Wonder if the guys are good at that?

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Last week, at a reading in Seattle, WA, a young woman who’d recently graduated from none less than Harvard, raised her hand: She and her girlfriends had been so thrilled when they were accepted to the school whose name is virtually synonymous with overachievement, accomplishment, and success, she said, “it was like, this is what we’ve been working for our whole lives!” But now that she’d graduated, she had exactly zero idea what to do with herself. Having come of age when she did—in an era where children’s time is programmed to within an inch of their lives, when every activity is undertaken with the explicit aim of servicing the future—is it any wonder she was at a loss, once she found herself thrust out into the real world and left to her own devices to navigate a landscape utterly devoid of any clear path? “What are we supposed to do now?” she asked.

As it turned out, though, she was the rare 20-something woman who knew exactly what she wanted to do next. She came up to chat later and laid it out: Grad school for medival history. She said it with such certainty it left me momentarily speechless: this girl didn’t seem undecided at all! So what was the problem? “Everyone,” she said, “says I shouldn’t do it.” In other words, the problem was this: she wanted something a little bit different, a little outside the culturally-approved norm, and hadn’t yet found a way to trust herself, to go for it, to escape what we like to call the tyranny of the shoulds.

That’s no small task, mind you. Tyrants, after all, are notoriously tricky to oust from power. And the shoulds are seriously entrenched: There are the big bad societal shoulds, of course, and there are also the shoulds you hear in your best friends’ voices, your mom’s, your significant other’s. TV and magazines remind us we should be thinner, happier, and sexier, while our doctors remind us we should sleep more and eat less frosting. And we give the nay-sayers the power—they’re the ones we affix with the name “everyone.” Rather than cueing the voices of our supporters—and surely, there are some—when we’re feeling a little doubtful, we call up the voice of “everyone,” which sounds so much like the voice of our own self-doubt, so damn familiar, it’s tough not to use as your go-to guide. But perhaps we might tune in a bit more, and see if we can hear the voices of everyone else. Search out our yay-sayers. They’re there.

It’s tough, of course, especially for women who’ve been bred to please, to go against the conventional wisdom “everyone” seems to believe. But that might be the surprising upside: knowing how hard it is to buck the “Shoulds,” how much easier it seems to just stick to the program—well, if knowing that and despite it our deep-down self continues its yammering about medival history or whatever – that’s an awfully powerful indicator that it’s our real voice we’re hearing. And that’s the one voice everyone should listen to.

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Life lessons via Woody Allen? Who knew.

Surely by now you have seen his latest, Midnight in Paris, a sweet little movie that is both a love letter to Paris with a few big questions tucked inside the laughs. To wit: Do we idealize what we don’t have? Are we in love with a fantasy — and does that love affair sometimes throw us over the edge?

For those of you who have not yet seen the movie, it’s not too much of a spoiler to note that Gil, the main character played by Owen Wilson, has fallen head over heels for a glorious Paris of a bygone era, the one that is inhabited by writers and artists such as Ernest Hemmingway, Scott (and Zelda) Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Salvador Dali. In the world according to Woody, Gil falls into a time wrinkle and dances and drinks with them all each night after the clock strikes 12.

It’s heady and exciting and romantic as well: Gil’s vision of the perfect life. And yet. What he eventually learns is this:  when you idealize the past, you put yourself in danger of missing out on the present.

It’s a lesson we women could take to heart. So many of us have been raised with the fantasy not of another era – but of the perfect life. It’s a pervasive message – you can have it all, you can do it all, you can be it all – and, the biggest scam of all, it’s all going to be perfect.

Except when it isn’t.

And yet, like our hapless hero in Midnight in Paris, once we’ve been fed on the fantasy, we continue to chase it as Gil does by hopping into a vintage Peugeot cabriolet each night that transports him to Gertrude Stein’s salon. But when our day-to-day reality falls short of the ideal – as it often does — we look to the other side of the fence, the path not taken, and assume the world we imagine, our own personal Paris of the 1920s, is so much better than it actually is.

And there you have it. Grass-is-greener syndrome as explained by Woody Allen.

All of which makes us wonder: does our romantization of that other reality lead us to second guess our choices?  Convince ourselves that someone out there is always doing it better, faster – and having more fun (and thanks for that, facebook friends)?

We know in our hearts that perfection is nothing but a pipedream, and yet the messaging tells us otherwise:  we’ll have it all it all – career, marriage, family and granite in the kitchen.  And all of it will be just as advertised, thank you very much.  But even when it is, as tennis icon Billie Jean King reminded us on the 50th anniversary of her first Wimbledon title, perfection is only a momentary hit of Nirvana.  Last week, NPR’s Susan Stamberg asked King, who won her first title at 17 and proceeded to win 20 more, what it felt like to hit a perfect shot.  Check her response:

Ms. KING: It feels like it’s mind, body and soul totally integrated for one perfect moment and you feel like you’re one with yourself and one with the universe all in a very split moment.

STAMBERG: The first time you do it, do you have time to stop and think, gee, I just did that, or is it just all moving so fast?

Ms. KING: No, no, it’s just a split moment. You’re in and out. You’re totally in the process, in the moment. That’s when you’re in the zone in anything. And all you do in life, if you’re engaged in the moment, that’s when life, I find, is the most, you know, it’s most gratifying.

And that’s the secret: Living in the moment, with all its beautiful imperfections.  Which leads us back to Midnight in Paris. The film  wraps with a dose of happily-ever-after as well as an epiphany that makes sense for us all: The present is a little unsatisfying because life itself is a little unsatisfying.

And that’s just fine with us.

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