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Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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So, the subject of our book is certainly in the air as of late. First, Ann Marie Slaughter, and now, a piece on The Daily Beast by Debora Spar, whose take on the issues of women chasing perfection, juggling roles and choices in a not-adequately-changed world was, frankly, so similar to the things we’ve written here and in our book, it took us a moment to realize it wasn’t our byline on her piece.

Ahem.

Now that that’s out of the way, as we noticed way back when we began writing Undecided in 2008, women today, blessed with the abundance of choices our mothers fought to get access to–and our foremothers might have thought impossible–are finding that this blessing is indeed mixed. That the messages on which we were raised, messages delivered with the best of intentions, have a flipside, as though delivered via an evil game of Telephone. Told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that whatever we choose to do, it better be something good… and we better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: that every choice entails a trade-off. That we cannot be in two places at once. That, by definition (not to mention the basic laws of physics), if I am sitting here pounding out this piece right now, I am not taking my dog for a hike, or meeting a friend for happy hour, or cleaning out my closet as I’ve been meaning to do for weeks now. (Though, I am, as a matter of fact, simultaneously cooking dinner. And now my keyboard is getting sticky from the roasted garlic I just pulled out of the oven. Dear Multitasking: You suck.) There are only so many hours in the day. No one really clues us in to that one.

We set off, ready to conquer the world, as we believe we’re supposed to. And then we realize: Having it all is simply not possible. A high-flying career woman is not also a stay-at-home mom. A stay-at-home mom is not also a globe-trotting free spirit. A globe-trotting free spirit is not also putting down roots, and paying down a mortgage. Every time we make a choice in favor of something, we are by default not choosing something else. But the rub is that we think it’s only about us. That we’re not good enough. That if only we were ___er, we’d be able to swing it. But that’s a lie.

That the chorus is getting louder is good. Because there is so much that remains to be done. And that there remains so much to be done–on the public policy and workplace fronts, yes, but in the way we talk to (and about) our sisters, our girlfriends and our selves, as well–in no way diminishes all the work that has been done, all that’s come before. And that we don’t want to diminish all that’s come before doesn’t diminish what lies ahead. The world hasn’t caught up to what we’ve been told–that feminism‘s fight is over, the battles won–policies and structures are still evolving. And we’re still so very, very hard on ourselves. We worry we aren’t measuring up, aren’t successful enough or a good enough parent or pretty enough or in shape enough or organic enough. All while mired in the juggle!

As we wrote in Undecided, women today are experiencing a collective bout of growing pains. And one way to ease those pains is to give up the chase for perfect, the attempt to have it all, and focus instead on, well, finding the life that’s right for us.

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Isn’t it funny, at a time that’s been described as The End of Men And The Rise of Women, during an election season that’s been touted as hinging on the “female vote,” during an era in which young adult humans of the female persuasion have never known a world in which Gloria Steinem wasn’t an icon, how little things have changed?

I write (today) not about politics, though. Or at least not ostensibly. Today what has me fired up are a couple of “most-emailed” headlines that make me want to stage an Extraordinary Act/Everyday Rebellion in the form of hurling a (hardcover) copy of The Beauty Myth through the television.

Exhibit A: Journalist Katie Couric debuts her new eponymous daytime talk show with a big “get.” With an election right around the corner, who’d she score? Jessica Simpson, there for the much-anticipated debut of her post-baby body.

Exhibit B: Original Bachelorette Trista Sutter, taking to Good Morning America to discuss the plastic surgery procedures she treated herself to as a pre-40th birthday gift (and which she enlisted Entertainment Tonight to document). Procedures which left her with an allergic reaction, the treatment of which left her suffering from a severe depression. But, hey, she says, it was totally “worth it.”

Something is seriously wrong with this picture. And you know, I didn’t bring up The Beauty Myth for my health or because it earns me angry feminist points: the entire premise of the (excellent) book is that, as women have gained more power and independence, the pressure to adhere to certain standards of beauty has intensified. Sound familiar? You bet your Spanx it does. But here’s the thing: The Beauty Myth was published in 1991. That’s over twenty years ago. Before Bump Alerts and mommy jobs (aka the boob job/tummy tuck combo) and, yes, Spanx. And I’d argue that not only has that dynamic not changed, it’s continued to intensify.

Women are gaining ever more power and independence, and the pressure to look perfect (let alone to “be perfect“) is more intense than ever. And hey, when we’re all preoccupied with achieving the perfect beach body (or getting our body back) or waxing ourselves hairless or learning how to create this season’s smoky eye, who has the energy to deal with the stuff that matters? Who has the time to remember there is stuff that matters?

And I think there are parallels to be made to what’s happening in politics. (I know, I said I’d leave politics out of it for today. Sorry, I lied. So sue me.) With the legislative changes those on the far right are proposing (and making), namely: making it more difficult for a woman to get birth control by making it okay for a pharmacist to refuse to give her her prescription on the grounds of the pharmacist’s religious beliefs, or chipping away at abortion rights–by enforcing waiting periods and invasive ultrasounds–and continuing to base campaigns on the promise that they’ll overturn Roe V. Wade, when you hear women like Sandra Fluke say that we’re being forced to fight battles we won a long time ago, well, you have to agree that she’s on to something.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was all a part of some grand and evil conspiracy. Some plot by those fearing they’re losing their grip on power, clinging by their fingernails to a status quo that’s slipping away, fighting to keep that power structure in place with everything that they have.

But I do know better. And that’s not the whole story (though it’s certainly several lengthy chapters of it). The other part, the darker part, is this: when it comes to the ever-loving Beauty Myth, we buy into it. Boogeymen like the patriarchy and marketers and Republicans and Archie Bunker nostalgics all have a role to play, of course — and play it they will. But when we buy in, expecting perfection not just of our reality-TV-starring sisters but of ourselves as well, we all lose.

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That gagging sound you heard last week, when Ann Romney bellowed in her best Oprah voice, “I love you, womennnnnn!”? That was me.

And not because I don’t love women; I do. And not because I don’t believe that Ann Romney loves women; I’m sure she does. It’s because, at best, this sentiment is utterly beside the point. And at worst, it’s a cynical, calculated, transparent attempt to chip away at the current and sizable gender gap among voters.

My thoughts crystallized this weekend, while reading an adaptation from Hanna Rosin‘s forthcoming book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” which ran in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. The piece–and Rosin’s book, which grew out of a much dissected article that ran in The Atlantic two years ago–focuses on several real-life families in Alexander City, Alabama, families who now rely on mom to bring home the bacon, a circumstance which leaves everyone puzzling over the reversal of roles. This change of fortune comes thanks to a confluence of factors including the disappearance of good-paying work in the manufacturing sector (jobs traditionally held by men), and the fact that the economy has changed, as have the types of jobs that are available, and the skills that are needed in order to land them:

These days that usually requires going to college or getting some job retraining, which women are generally more willing to do. Two-thirds of the students at the local community college are women, which is fairly typical of the gender breakdown in community colleges throughout the country.

These shifts represent a reality that bumps with the worldview there, informed by both Southern tradition and the Evangelical church. Rosin writes of a conversation with Reuben Prater, currently out of work:

Reuben has a college degree and doesn’t seem especially preoccupied with machismo, so I asked him why, given how many different kinds of jobs he has held, he couldn’t train for one of the jobs that he knew was available: something related to schools, nursing or retail, for example. One reason was obvious–those jobs don’t pay as much as he was accustomed to making–but he said there was another. ‘We’re in the South,’ he told me. ‘A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.’ I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed.

All of which makes me chuckle a bit, when one considers this:

‘An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the local economy,’ says Michael Greenstone, an economist at M.I.T. and director of the Hamilton Project, which has done some of the most significant research on men and unemployment. ‘It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.’

Why shouldn’t they have a hard time? We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what it is to be a man. Or a woman. We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what’s valued–and when, for centuries, to be a man was to hold power and make money, finding a woman to fill the role of “helpmate” along his ascent, I’d say it’s not mysterious at all that men are having a hard time hearing the message that things are changing.

Who wants to hear that their status is in jeopardy, their power no longer assured? Who wouldn’t find themselves at a loss?

And, as for the women, we’re taking on the challenges because we can. To earn a paycheck was not something expected of us as women; it’s something we’ve had to fight for the right to do.

And it’s not just the middle-aged men who have careers and lives to look back upon as they wonder what changed who are idling. Even young men seem resistant to what’s really going on. One family profiled in Rosin’s piece exemplifies it all: Rob Pridgen, whose job had recently been phased out; his wife Connie, a high school teacher; and her grown daughter Abby, who found Rob’s explanation of “man-as-provider” laughable:

At this point… Abby, who was then 19, piped up with her own perspective on the Southern code of chivalry, which she said sounded like nonsense to her, given how the boys she knew actually behaved–hanging out in the parking lot, doing God knows what, or going home and playing video games instead of bothering to apply for college…

[Another] afternoon, while Rob sat nearby, Connie and Abby were mulling over a passage from Proverbs that is sometimes read at church for Mother’s Day and that had come up in a Bible-study group.

The passage describes the ‘wife of noble character,’ who works with the wool and the flax, brings the food from afar, who ‘gets up while it is still dark,’ buys a field, plants a vineyard, turns a profit, and ‘her lamp does not go out at night’ because she’s still sewing clothes for the poor and generally being industrious while everyone else sleeps. Her husband, meanwhile, ‘is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.’

Traditionally the passage has been viewed as an elaboration of the proper roles of husband and wife. The husband sits in the dominant, protective role, watching his wife’s efforts on behalf of the family and taking pride. But in a town in which many men aren’t working steadily anymore, the words have taken on new meaning. There are people who have noticed that the passage never mentions what the husband is doing or what role he’s playing in providing food for his family, tilling the fields or turning a profit. And what’s dawning on Connie these last few months became obvious to Abby and Rob as she read the passage out loud. That noble wife is working from dawn to dusk. And the husband?

‘Sounds like he’s sitting around with his buddies shooting the breeze, talking about the ballgame and eating potato chips,’ Rob said.

Abby wasn’t surprised. Around Alex City, she said it seemed that it was the girls who were full of energy and eager to see the world. Her own brother, Alex, who was 17, seemed to want to stay in town forever and raise his family here. But Abby was enrolled in Southern Union State Community College, attending on a show-choir scholarship. Her plan was to go there for a year, as many girls in Alex City do, to save money, and then head to Auburn University.

Things are changing in major ways. And change is tough to deal with. But while we’re all puzzling over these seismic shifts is precisely the wrong time to accept blatant pandering with nothing of substance beneath it. And it makes such pandering even more offensive. Women are important to Republicans only in as much as a vote is a vote. But women are increasingly important to this economy, not to mention to the financial support of the typical family and household–we are, in so many ways, patently integral to the success of our society. And the outdated structures and policies we’re left with–and some are fighting fervently to preserve–are relics of a bygone era, useless as typewriters or VCRs. To refuse to recognize the changing times is the worst kind of denial–one that breeds backward-looking policies and irrelevant debate. Our society and our economy need us. To truly value women would be to prioritize policies that help working mothers, health care for everyone, reproductive rights. To patronize women by saying “we love you,” or “your job has always been harder,” is useless when it’s paired with a refusal to acknowledge who today’s women actually are, what they actually do. Because it’s not just women who depend on it.

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I think it’s time to send the Mommy Wars off to bed once and for all.

Best-selling novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan would definitely agree.  Kogan was one of the featured break-out speakers at last week’s Sun Valley Writers Conference and her talk on the myth of the mommy wars provided food for both thought and the soul.

Kogan, a former photojournalist who spent her twenties covering international war zones, is the author of Shutterbabe, a memoir she wrote after the birth of her first child, and The Red Book, a New York Times bestseller that catches up with four Harvard roommates as they struggle, twenty years later, with the challenges of adult life.  She told a rapt audience that the media-created war that, again and again, pits women against each other is nothing but a diversion that keeps us from the real work of changing a broken system:

Once women were seen pitted thus–working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers–instead of us discussing why we have no infrastructure for working families — the simple us versus them becomes insidiously ingrained.

The us-versus-them business: Kogan was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned.  But what was encouraging to me was the way the women in the audience, ranging in age from twenty-something to sixty-plus, grabbed her message and got riled up, ready to join the right kind of fight.

Kogan traced the origins of the Mommy Wars back to that ridiculous cookie contest between Barbara Bush and Hilary Clinton. (Call it the cookie wars.  Check Family Circle and you’ll see they’re still going on.).  She provided slides of the recent media flashpoints, stuff we’ve written about, here and here:  “Are you Mom Enough”, the recent Time Magazine cover story on attachment parenting, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in “The Atlantic”, which set the bar so high for having it all, Kogan said, as to render the term meaningless.  The resulting brouhaha also led to a fake dust-up between Slaughter and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. What’s interesting, Kogan said, is that these images, these poster-moms, don’t look like any women she knows.

Most women are worried about how they can afford to buy that dinner; what if their husband gets sick; if the nanny makes $750/week, how can I afford to work?  What vacation?  AND being judged constantly.  By framing this as a war, the media sets up the idea that one side must win.  And that diverts the attention from the real issue through the juxtaposition of mommy plus war — without caveats.

Kogan provided charts and stats, comparing the support the U.S. offers working mothers versus the policies in other countries such as France or Sweden.  You can guess where the U.S. fell in most of those measures:  Off the charts, actually, and not in a good way (as we too found when we researched our book.)  Add in crappy vacation policies (versus France, she said, where five weeks’ vacation is the norm) and corporate work expectations that can top out at eighty hour work weeks.  And while the cost of child care have gone up, salaries have stagnated.

Read and weep.

What we need, Kogan said, is paid maternity leave (or parental leave, so pop can step in as well) to get the babies through that crucial first year of life without either making ourselves crazy by going back to work too soon — or staying home and going broke.  What we also need, she said, is “subsidized day care so one’s entire paycheck after year one is not going to the nanny.”

Amen to that.

And yet, we’ve all been conned by the subtext of the Mommy War meme:  it’s an either/or choice.  You stay home or you go gangbusters on your career.  Nothing in between.  All of which leads to a lot of judging.  But for most women, the choices are not quite so stark.

Kogan realized early on that motherhood was not compatible with war photography.  She moved to New York City, got a job at NBC, and with the birth of her first child took six months maternity leave and saw her family’s savings dwindle.  Twenty-one months later, she had her second child and, toward the end of her maternity leave, found herself called to Paris at the last minute – instantly weaning her daughter and without time to grab a breast pump – when Princess Di was killed.  Three years later, she asked her boss at NBC if she could cut back to a four-day work week.  Her boss said yes.  Her boss’s boss, a female VP, turned her down.  At which point, Kogan quit to stay home and write – and became a casualty of the Mommy Wars herself.

When “Shutterbabe” came out,  a memoir of her days as a photojournalist, she was called a sell-out, a “lactating nester,” a woman who had “left a brilliant career to be a soccer mom.”  Now, three books later, she is often asked, if she had to make a choice, which would it be:  Her children or her books?

I doubt that’s a question any male author has to answer.  I answer that I’d chose my children of course, but why on earth should I have to?

The real issue, Kogan says, is not the media-created catfight, but the fact that when (make that “if”) we end up judging each other for our choices, we’re fighting the wrong fight.

Toward the end of the session, a woman in the audience stood, asking if Kogan was doing anything herself to work on policy change.  Her answer? “No!  I’m too friggen busy. I always feel like one shoe is falling off.  And that’s at the heart of what happens – people who are affected by this, are just too busy.”

Later, I caught up with her for some additional thoughts:

It should really be us–all mothers–versus them–the men in Congress who keep trying to chip away, seemingly mercilessly, at the small gains women have made instead of pushing forward and rethinking the entire American paradigm, which is rotten to the core. So in that sense, it’s about controlling women: their access to birth control, family planning, and the normal benefits after the baby is born that all other developed countries take for granted. To me, the right wing Congressmen are just Taliban in suit and ties.

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It’s not so much the right-wingers’ war on women that pisses me off — it’s the fact that they think we’re dumb enough to buy their talking points.

Case in point, a Bloomberg op-ed by Ramesh Ponnuru that attempts to make the case that the gender wage gap is nothing but nonsense: we make less because we choose to work less.  Or chose the wrong majors.

Here’s the truth you won’t hear: The pay gap is exaggerated, discrimination doesn’t drive it and it’s not clear that government can eliminate it — or should even try.

Exaggerated?  Hardly.  Fortunately, over there on Jezebel, Katie J. M. Baker did her homework.  She gleefully called out the “mansplainer”, refuting his thesis by citing some stats from the National Partnership research study.  Here’s just a taste:

  • Women in science, technology, engineering and math are paid 86 percent of what their male counterparts are paid.
  • As soon as one year after graduation, women working full time are paid only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues, even when controlling for field of study and age.
  • Among all workers 25 years of age and older with some high school education, women’s median weekly wages total $388 compared to a total of $486 for men.
  • Women in the service industry are paid only about 75 percent of the mean weekly wages paid to men in equivalent positions. In 2008 the average starting salary of a new female physician was $16,819 less than her male counterpart after controlling for observable characteristics such as specialty type and hours worked. A newly minted female MBA graduate is paid, on average, $4,600 less at her first job than a new male MBA graduate.
  • A 2010 GAO study on women in management found that female managers are paid only 81 percent as much as male managers.
  • Even when childless women and men are compared, full-time working women are paid only 82 percent as much as full-time working men.
  • Women are penalized for caregiving while men are not; the 2003 GAO study found that women with children are paid about 2.5 percent less than women without children, while men with children enjoy an earnings boost of 2.1 percent, compared with men without children.

(Our friends to the north, apparently, are no better.  According to Canadian Lawyer and Law Times, female in-house counsel earn about 16 per cent less than their male counterparts on average. Though men tend to hold higher level positions — which is problematic itself — men are still making more than women in comparable roles and are twice as likely as women to have had a 10 percent raise this past year.)

Anyway.  You can guess why this matters: the Republican’s newly tapped vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, a card-carrying soldier in the war on women, is on the record for voting against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, if that’s any indication of where a Romney-Ryan administration would stand on equal pay.  Stay tuned to hear more of this anti-wage gap rhetoric in the months to come.

The next mansplainer was actually a woman.  Equally annoying was a post on Forbes.com that attempted to make the case that “pitting women against Ryan was a counterproductive sideshow.”  Really?  The writer, Sabrina Shaeffer is executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum.  She says we lefty feminists have got it wrong.  (She also goes out of her way to tag anyone in favor of women’s rights as Left-with-a-captial-L or Liberal Democrats.  As if this were a bad thing…) What women really care about, she writes, is what men care about: it’s the economy, stupid.  The other stuff?  Health care, reproductive rights, the social net that benefits, most of all, families? Nothing but sideshow:

…a message framing experiment conducted for the Independent Women’s Voice (IWV) by Evolving Strategies this summer found that while the “War on Women” narrative might please the most liberal Democrats, it actually hurts them with independents and weak partisans – the very voters who helped put Obama in the White House.

This doesn’t seem to be stopping the Left, however, from trying to position Ryan as antagonistic to women and steering the conversation away from the economy. In particular they seem focused on three issues: Ryan’s views on entitlement reform, workplace regulations, and the HHS contraception mandate. But as women get more information about Ryan’s positions, they are likely to find him even more appealing.

Don’t think so.  All of which leads to the biggest scam of all — wait for it — which is sure to crop up before long: the sanctimonious equating of social conservatism with family values.  As we’ve written before, with regard to another family values guy:

Maybe prayer in school, opposition to gay marriage, and blowing up the safety net are the kinds of values that made your family strong.  But I seriously doubt it.  If the health of the American family is what we’re after, the values that matter most are more along the lines of equal opportunity, access to good health care and quality education, and above all, an abiding sense of compassion.

I guess I need a mansplainer to spell out for me why, for example, a gay marriage threatens my own?  Or why, if the social conservatives are against women terminating a pregnancy — even to save their own lives — it makes sense to limit their ability to prevent a pregnancy in the first place.  Or, the greatest canard of all, that repealing Obamacare is pro-family, when statistics show, and as we have written time and again, that the main beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act are, you guessed it, women and children.  Save the fetus, forget the child?

Now, you may be one of those women whose job — and health benefits — is absolutely secure.  Maybe child-bearing is in your rear view mirror and, what the hell, you never had daughters anyway. Or you may have a securely-employed spouse who can not only pick up the tab, but the dry cleaning, too.

But then again, maybe you don’t.  And maybe you are, or someday will be, one of those legions of American women whose family will one day rely on any one of the entitlements, like food stamps or even Pell grants, that got the ax in the Paul Ryan House budget — which was more about ideology than reality —  that favored lower taxes, higher defense spending, and a bunch of holes — if not outright shredding — of our safety net.

Which is to say: How do you like those talking points now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I confess: I love shoes.  Especially when they’re high.  Until they wore out, my go-to faves were a pair of black leather ankle boots with dangerously high heels. They were actually pretty comfortable, but I would have worn them anyway because they looked damn good.

I’m also a feminist.

I bring this up because I often ponder the tension between feminism and fashion – the way fashion is often framed as a silly vanity, often driven by our need to please men, rather than ourselves. The trope popped into my noggin again this weekend, after I read a piece in Sunday’s New York Times that seemed to imply that women could be accomplished or fashionable, but rarely both.

The story cast a bemused eye on the new stylistas of Silicon Valley who were “bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion.”  (One interviewee was the 29-year-old founder of a travel start-up who, the reporter noted, was wearing a pair of hot pink Christian Louboutains.  At which point I wondered: if you can actually afford to buy Louboutains – why wouldn’t you?)

Anyway, it got me to thinking:  Are fashion and feminism ever compatible? Can you maintain professional cred in serious stilettos?  And why, when you dress to impress is there the assumption that who you are aiming to please is the patriarchy?

For some food for thought, I turned to a couple of smart women, who are both rather stylish in their own right.  The first is an expert on gender politics, Shira Tarrant, a California State University, Long Beach women’s studies professor whose new book “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style” uses fashion to deconstruct the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality.  When I asked if fashionistas could be taken seriously as feminists, her answer was “absolutely”:

And feminists can be taken seriously as fashionistas. Feminists have a bad rap when it comes to fashion. We’re accused of being frumpy, unattractively braless, and inexcusably hirsute. But the fact is that feminism has always paid attention to the politics of style, and many feminists are incredibly fashionable.

Still, she says, when it comes to fashion as a lens to understanding  — and changing — gender politics, consider the context:

We live in a patriarchal, capitalist culture. We can never completely separate our fashion choices from the social structures we live in. But that doesn’t mean we’re always victims of our culture, either.  Fashion can be self-objectifying. At the same time, fashion can push back against a culture that keeps insisting that women hypersexualize ourselves. Fashion can be used to subvert the status quo, but the question is whether we can ever fully achieve this — especially without more sweeping economic and political change.

We’re always grappling with this tension between self-expression and self-objectification. The question is how do we remove the gendered penalties of self-expression. Our culture still encourages women to be attractive and pleasing to men. Fashion isn’t exempt from that. At the same time, fashion can be used to subvert these expectations. We can use fashion as a form of pop culture pushback.

Pushback?  Fantastic!  My second source, my colleague Charlotta Kratz, a lecturer in the communication department at Santa Clara University, would agree.

Through my clothes I tell people that I’m not completely what they may assume given my age or profession.  For long periods of time I challenged notions of status through how I dressed. I had a pair of denim overalls that I wore in professional settings.  As an recent immigrant, with an accent, I used to soften my being different by dressing plainly in jeans and t-shirts. I found that when I wore my Scandinavian designer clothes, mostly black, my California students found it harder to understand me.

I don’t think I dress for men. I think I dress to attract people who will “get” me.  Some of those will be men with a possible sexual interest in me. I don’t mind that. I like men and I like innocent everyday flirting. But, some of those people will be other heterosexual women, like my colleagues or students. For them my clothes will be signals of different kinds.

Kratz points out that we communicate through our fashion choices – clothes, hair, bags, cars — to become someone in social settings:

Not washing our cars is a statement. Sporting hairstyles that are carefully created to look as if we never comb our hair says something about us too. Whoever says “I don’t care about how I look” takes a lot of pride, and puts lots of effort into that particular style.

And that’s it, isn’t it? Fashion is simply the signals we send, the way we use artifacts like clothes and shoes to represent ourselves.  As Shannon wrote back when we were in the throes of writing our book (and, ironically, clad most days in scrubs) for most of us, it’s pure self-expression: Clothes, she wrote, “say something to the world about who we are. Or who we want to be perceived to be.”

In other words, it’s a choice: one that I think is more than compatible with feminism. We dress to please ourselves, to show the world who we are.  Which leads back to that frame that won’t go away, that fashion is simply a tool of the patriarchy. As for me, if pleasing men were my goal, I have failed miserably, at least with one man in my life who after decades of marriage still can’t understand why I need more than three pair of shoes – sneakers, flip flops or the moral equivalent, and dress shoes – or why I never leave the house without lipstick.

Anyway, back to Tarrant.  I asked her to describe her own particular style and what she said was this: “My sartorial style skews toward earth tones, black, and grey, with a radical splash of liberation.”

Done!

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The other day after I got home from my run (I use the term advisedly), I got a call from the local NBC affiliate asking for a quick interview on the overall impact of “girl power”  in this year’s Olympics.  Within ten minutes, the reporter and her cameraman were on their way.

While dashing around the house trying to figure out what to wear — no white, no black, no patterns — and ruing the fact that I never mastered the art of applying makeup, I did some power thinking about what the so-called “year of the woman” means to those of us who have never done a cartwheel and who were always the last to be chosen for volleyball.  (Both would be me.) And what I realized is that the Olympic Games are a good metaphor for a lot of what we call real life.

Wherein we find some real lessons, especially for us women.

Lesson one:  You go for the gold, girl.  First, there’s the good old-fashioned inspiration of the goose-bump variety.  Whenever a woman excels at anything, I’m inspired — even if it’s not my field.  Gabby or Missy or Kerri and Misty?  Talk about motivation.  And yet it’s a message that goes far beyond the pool or the (faux) beach or the balance beam: set yourself a goal, work hard, try your darnedest and anything is possible: You never know what you can do until you take that leap of faith.

For all of us, there’s joy to be found in getting into the Zen of it all, of being totally absorbed in our passions, whether it’s poetry or pole vaulting.  Put yourself out there, throw yourself into your dreams one hundred percent, and the message is this: you just might bring home the gold.

Lesson two:  Fail well.  Or maybe you won’t: put yourself out there, give it your all — and you still might fall flat on your face.  But even if you fail spectacularly, you still win. We write about this a lot:  one of the surest indicators of future success is how good you are at failing. In fact, this year the New York Times reported on some cutting edge school programs based on something called the character strengths inventory that is proving that kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. (Look no further than world gymnastics champion Jordyn Wieber, who failed to qualify for the individual all-around final yet came back to nail her floor exercises.)

Which leads to …

Lesson three: Take the risk.  In other words, failure can often be the world’s best teacher. First, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve taken a risk and lived to tell the tale. And then there’s this: That whole process of trial and error is likely to bring you closer to figuring out your own goals and how to get there.  Maybe you’ll learn from what you’ve done wrong and do it better the next time – or just maybe you can use that failure to rule things out.  If you can see that failure for what it is, just one more step in the never-ending process we call life, you may well learn something that can propel you forward. Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure. But regret? It’s not recoverable.”

That risk-taking, the idea of allowing ourselves the courage to fail?  It’s especially important to today’s women who are often navigating uncharted territory, especially in the workplace.  As Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote, “We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.”

And speaking of running without a roadmap …

Lesson Four: Dispense with the shoulds.  That’s Gloria Steinem’s line, not ours.  More in a bit. I was once asked for advice from a very earnest twenty-something who wanted to know what women trying to make their way into high-stakes careers should do. And my answer was this:  I don’t have any advice — not because I don’t like to dish it out – but because there are no clear cut, one-size fits all answers.   For us, I told her, it’s all too new.  And then I quoted Gloria Steinem, who once told a group of college women: “Dispense with the word “should.” Don’t think about the way women should fit into the world.  Think about how the world should fit women.”

Which brings us back to my soundbyte on the nightly news and perhaps the best lesson of all from the year of the woman.  The reporter asked my take on those women who were owning the non-traditional sports like Judo and weightlifting, breaking through the stereotypes, and what I said was something like this:  “Every time a woman does something a little above and beyond society’s expectations, it opens doors for all of us.  And I think that’s fantastic.”

I was overshadowed, of course, by an interview with a poised young tween in a leotard at a local gymnastics center.  What she said she has taken away from this year’s Olympics is the belief that women can do whatever they want, that they can do just as much as men can.  “I’m motivated,” she said, looking straight at the camera, “to do better than I think I can.”

Girl power, indeed.

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I’m off to Mexico tomorrow, and, up until a couple of hours ago, I possessed exactly zero pairs of non-running shorts. Ergo, I sucked it up and made a speed shopping trip between a quick lunch and a (not so quick) meeting so that I might procure a pair or two. And in the dressing room, my internal dialogue was not along the lines of These Are Cute or These Are Heinous, but instead, something more like this: How does my butt look? My thighs? Does the color make my skin look even paler than it already is? Does the cut make me look shorter than I already am? (I suppose it’s no wonder that up until today I owned no shorts. I have better things to do than entertain this variety of nonsense. Like sterilizing mason jars for bulk snacks. Or hunting for unicorns.)

Turns out, though, there’s a reason I do this, and you likely do it, too. And it’s not that we’re obsessed with our looks or have poor body images or are bereft of self esteem. Nope. According to a new study, people–men or women–are basically programmed to view women as a constellation of parts. Arms. Abs. Butt. Lips. Eyes. Toes. Whole person? Not so much. Via Eurkalert, check it out:

When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts. Consider, for instance, photo mosaics consisting of hundreds of tiny pictures that when arranged a certain way form a larger overall image: In fact, it takes two separate mental functions to see the mosaic from both perspectives.
A new study suggests that these two distinct cognitive processes also are in play with our basic physical perceptions of men and women–and, importantly, provides clues as to why women are often the targets of sexual objectification.
The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways. When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on “global” cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of “local” cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.

Now, said study could only show that this is the case, not why this is the case. I, however, am not above speculating: Blame the media, society, your parents or teachers or coaches or friends or Barbie or Vogue, whomever you like. There is no shortage of scapegoats, and they’ve all likely earned at least a little bit of that blame. Even still: argh.

One upside: the study found that, when circumstances were altered to encourage the participants to take a more “global” approach to evaluating the subjects, they were more likely to see the women as whole people. We’ll stay tuned for the study that figures out how to alter the circumstances of life-in-general accordingly.

In the meantime, though, I kind of have to wonder: what if this sort of reductionist objectification isn’t just limited to our physical selves? I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re basically conditioned to view women as Ms. Potatoheads, legs and arms and teeth and butts and breasts and thighs. But what about the rest of it, the other ways we pick ourselves apart? In the same way we judge ourselves (and others) according to a running checklist of physical attributes (I’m tall and I have good hair and pretty toes but no boobs but good abs but my arms could be more toned and my teeth need whitening…), do we dissect ourselves on the other stuff too?  (Well, I’m not that organized but I’m very successful but I should be more physically active and my spiritual life basically consists of praying for good parking spaces but I have good friends but my romantic life’s in the toilet but I am super good with money…)

Am I onto something? Methinks yes. That stuff’s tougher to brush off, sure, but, think for a minute, about that Ms. Potatohead study. It makes you mad, right? It’s clearly wrong, isn’t it? A woman is clearly more than a bucket of parts, isn’t she?

So what if cataloguing the other stuff is just as wrong?

It feels helpful, in a way, to keep score–like we could plug in all the data and then some magical algorithm will spit out a number. To tell us what, though? You are doing ThisWell at life, I guess. But that would be nonsense, because things can look great from the outside and be terrible inside. And things can look not particularly impressive on the outside but be pretty incredible from the inside. A random sampling of body parts gives you no real indication of the whole, but it’s kind of impossible to describe in what way, precisely, that is so. Why the parts, taken separately, are so inadequate. So I just wonder:  What if the dissecting we do of ourselves, the inventories we take of our lives are just as false, just as misleading? What if our value as a person has nothing to do with the score on the checklist? And what if we are, truly, greater than the sum of our parts?

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