Posts Tagged ‘Maureen Dowd’

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

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

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

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

As Kristof writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When 30 year-old Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke tried to testify in favor of health insurance-covered contraception at a Congressional hearing (and, after being blocked by Rep. Darrell Issa R-CA, then had to issue her extremely articulate testimony via YouTube), Rush Limbaugh had this to say in return:

[She] goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. The johns.

Maureen Dowd – herself a past target of Limbaugh’s name-calling — took him down in the New York Times Sunday Review, point by point, starting with the fact that he implies that birth control is a “welfare entitlement,” when, of course, it’s not: employers and insurance companies would cover contraception, not tax dollars. And

Mother Jones pointed out that Rush, a Viagra fan, might be confusing the little blue pill and birth control, since “when and how much sex you have is unrelated to the amount of birth control you need.”

But let’s assume he wasn’t confusing the two little pills. Let’s assume he was well aware that his “welfare entitlement” remark was factually inaccurate. Let’s assume he knew exactly how wrong he was. No, wait! Let’s assume he really believed he was right – and still, rather than laying out a rational argument — he instead took the desperate-for-attention, cowardly bully’s way out. Slut! Neener neener.

Pretty much every single time we write about feminism on the HuffingtonPost, at least one or two commenters will appear, calling us ugly. Fat. Man-hating. Feminazis. Yet rarely do these haters bother to address the issue at hand, whatever we happened to be writing about on that particular day. That’s because it’s not about the issues. Tossing Pee-Wee Herman-caliber barbs is easy. Ridiculous as they may be, taking them is a little harder. I mean, I don’t think I’m ugly (calling all haters, here’s your chance to disagree!), but that doesn’t really matter. It still stings. And Limbaugh and Internet commenters and schoolyard bullies and others like them count on that: if a woman knows that standing up for, say insurance-covered birth control will have her publicly labeled a slut, she’s probably that much more likely to keep mum (and to continue shelling out for it, out of her own pocket).

It all reminds me of something I wrote about a while back, about a conversation I’d come across between journalists Joan Walsh and Gail Collins, ahead of the release of Collins’ book “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present.”

I was struck by some of what Collins said in the final clip, when Walsh asked her about Billy Jean King, who Collins frames in the book as a real-life feminist hero. Talking about the much-hyped “Battle of the Sexes,” in which King wiped the court with a not-at-the-top-of-his-game Bobby Riggs (who, even when he was at the top of his game, wasn’t all that threatening), Collins said the following:

The importance of it to me was that women who fought for women’s rights in the 60s and 70s did not get hosed down, or attacked by snarling dogs, or thrown in jail; they got laughed at. And humiliation and embarrassment was the great huge club that people used to keep women in line.

How much has really changed?

Some of Rush’s advertisers have dropped off, and President Obama himself gave Fluke a call, telling her that her parents should be proud. The Senate (barely) voted down a bill that would allow insurers and employers to deny contraception coverage based on any “religious or moral” objection. Rush “apologized.” So, that’s progress.

There are those who say Limbaugh’s whole schtick is to be outrageous. It’s about ratings, they argue. So I guess real progress will happen when grown-ups no longer choose to listen to grown men behaving like children, or defend grown men behaving like children on the grounds that it’s “entertaining.”

It’s not entertaining. It’s pathetic. And to those who may disagree, I’d love to hear it. And to those who may disagree but will instead insult me, I say: I know you are, but what am I?

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Clearly on the extreme is the most recent string of pols abusing their, ahem, position.  First up, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who fathered a child over ten years ago with one of his housekeepers.  As in someone who for 20 years worked inside his home, where he lived with his wife and kids.  Ugh.

And then there’s IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, reputed to be the heir apparent of Nicolas Sarkozy.  Strauss-Kahn is currently being held without bail in Riker’s Island for chasing a maid around his suite in a Manhattan hotel while wearing no pants.  Or anything else, for that matter.  And oh yes.  He sexually assaulted her.  And by the way, have you seen a picture of this guy?

What I keep wondering is what makes these men with power — simply the latest in a long string of pols who couldn’t keep their pants on — think they can get away with this stuff.  (Can you imagine Hillary Clinton, for example, chasing around a bellhop?)  Oh, wait.  Did I just answer my own question?

What I think is that it has to do with entitlement.  And it goes a lot deeper — and it’s much more pervasive — than the shenanigans of a bunch of horny old men.  Shannon, in fact, went there Tuesday in her post about Bridesmaids, where she wrote that in our culture, “everything male-centered is standard, and everything female-centered is female.”  In other words, we girls are still seen as outside the norm:

It’s an issue we dissect pretty thoroughly in the book. And it’s all yet another reason why so many women are so damn undecided: yes, we’ve been told we can do anything… but the world continues to show us that we should probably stifle certain parts of ourselves to get to the point where we can do it. That we’re the fringe, lucky to be allowed to play in the men’s world.

Yep.  We’ve got all the doors open — we can be doctors or lawyers or comedy writers or anything else — but those doors still open up into the old boy’s network, where the structures were designed by and for men and where, at the worst extreme, guys with power think they can get away with running around without their pants.  Okay, that’s a metaphor, but you get the picture, right?  (Or maybe you would rather not.)  Cue the power differential, and guess where that leaves us.

Maureen Dowd went there, in a column about the coming season of network TV shows that feature Playboy bunnies, a Charlie’s Angels remake, and a show about sixties-era stewardesses “harking back to the good old days when women didn’t sit in first class, they simply served the men who did..”  Okay, barf.  Dowd points out that there are still some strong women featured on the small screen, but, she writes:

… Hollywood is a world ruled by men, and this season, amid economic anxieties, those men want to indulge in some retro fantasies about hot, subservient babes.

“It’s the Hendricks syndrome,” said one top male TV producer here. “All the big, corporate men saw Christina Hendricks play the bombshell secretary on ‘Mad Men’ and fell in love. It’s a hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away. Women today don’t go away.”

A top female entertainment executive says “it’s not a coincidence that these retro shows are appearing at the same time men are confused about who to be. A lot of women are making more money and getting more college degrees. The traditional roles of dominant and submissive roles are reversed in many cases. Everything was clearer in the ’60s.”

But have things changed so much?  College degrees and fat paychecks notwithstanding, we’re clearly not in charge.  If we were, would primetime really be centered around pointy bras, cinched waists and puffy cottontails?

Our last word comes from uber-feminist Roseanne Barr who, in a scathing New York Magazine essay spills it all on how she got screwed by Hollywood in the first year of her award-winning sitcom — and reminds us how much things have not changed.  She writes of how she had her ideas and jokes stolen out from under her by her producer, Marcy Carsey, and writer Matt Williams, who was credited with creating the series, even though it was based on her fierce Domestic Goddess, a character she’d created doing stand-up for eight years in “dive clubs and biker bars.”  And what she learned that first year was this:

It was pretty clear that no one really cared about the show except me, and that Matt and Marcy and ABC had nothing but contempt for me—someone who didn’t show deference, didn’t keep her mouth shut, didn’t do what she was told. Marcy acted as if I were anti-feminist by resisting her attempt to steal my whole life out from under me. I made the mistake of thinking Marcy was a powerful woman in her own right. I’ve come to learn that there are none in TV. There aren’t powerful men, for that matter, either—unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on the air and what doesn’t.

Which leads us back to where we started.  Entitlement and where it leaves us.  In this case, writes Barr, it’s at the feet of Charlie Sheen.

Nothing real or truthful makes its way to TV unless you are smart and know how to sneak it in, and I would tell you how I did it, but then I would have to kill you. Based on Two and a Half Men’s success, it seems viewers now prefer their comedy dumb and sexist. Charlie Sheen was the world’s most famous john, and a sitcom was written around him. That just says it all. Doing tons of drugs, smacking prostitutes around, holding a knife up to the head of your wife—sure, that sounds like a dream come true for so many guys out there, but that doesn’t make it right! People do what they can get away with (or figure they can), and Sheen is, in fact, a product of what we call politely the “culture.”

And there you go.  We wonder where naked old men get the idea that it’s okay to chase a chambermaid around a hotel room, or why studio heads, as Shannon wrote, who believe “that one half of the population thinks seeing a movie about women will somehow cost them their balls” always get their way.

The answer is simple.  Because they can.

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Successful women, watch out.  The menfolk, they don’t like us.

At least that’s the message from a New York Times piece by Katrin Bennhold, titled “Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Female Empowerment”.  And since we’re all, you know, successful women, we thought we ought to parse it out if only to share the idiot shivers.  Prepare yourself for some backlash.

The piece starts out with SATC’s Miranda, the redhaired ambitious and successful lawyer sucked into the peculiar hell that is speed-dating:

Remember “Sex and the City,” when Miranda goes speed-dating? She wastes her eight-minute pitch three times by giving away that she is a corporate lawyer. The fourth time she says she is a stewardess and gets asked out by a doctor.

What made the episode poignant was not just that Miranda lied about her success, but that her date did, too: it turned out he worked in a shoe store.

The piece goes on to explore the stereotype, questioning whether romance has been done in by “female empowerment.”  Ugh, right?  But let’s keep reading anyhow:

Sexual attraction in the 21st century, it seems, still feeds on 20th-century stereotypes. Now, as more women match or overtake men in education and the labor market, they are also turning traditional gender roles on their head, with some profound consequences for relationship dynamics.

There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate and have been immortalized in S.A.T.C. and the Bridget Jones novels. There are the alpha-women who end up with alpha-men but then decide to put career second when the babies come. But there is also a third group: a small but growing number of women who out-earn their partners, giving rise to an assortment of behavioral contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact.

Puh-leese.  Can you hear me sigh? Next comes the anecdotal stuff:  the smart girls who keep their hubbies happy by playing 1950s housewives just to keep the spark alive.  Even though they outearn their men, they let them pick up the tab when they’re out in public.  They let them hold open the door and drive the car.  They book reservations in their husbands’ name, for fear that, I don’t know, these guys might have to turn in their testosterone card.  Clearly, these guys are weenies, but whatever. You get the picture, which is summed up in the article thus:

Dating sites seem to suggest that highly educated women have more trouble finding a partner than women in more traditionally female jobs. “Care and social professions work well; the really educated profiles are more difficult,” said Gesine Haag, 43, who used to run match.com in Germany. An elite dating portal at the company, trying to match up highly educated men and women, was abandoned and refocused more broadly, said Ms. Haag, who now manages her own Internet marketing agency.

“Men don’t want successful women, men want to be admired,” she said. “It’s important to them that the woman is full of energy at night and not playing with her BlackBerry in bed.”

Bernard Prieur, a psychoanalyst and author of “Money in Couples,” says men who earn less than their partners struggle with two insecurities: “They feel socially and personally vulnerable. Socially, they go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner. And the success of their partner also often gives them a feeling of personal failure,” Mr. Prieur said in the November issue of the French magazine Marie-Claire.

Blah, blah, blah.  Granted, Benhold’s story has a Paris dateline, and its focus is Europe, where a man is still, you know, A Man.  But there’s this, too.  Where are the numbers?  Where’s the research?  Anecdotal information and weasel words like “many” or “more”  does not a true trend make.  And so, I have to wonder if there’s backlash at play:  let’s keep the girls in their place by convincing them that guys still don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.  Or, well, business suits.  Can it become self-fulfilling prophecy?

We went here once before, in a post (referencing a column by Maureen Dowd) that suggested that we’re still letting the stereotypes define us:  smart or sexy.  Beauty or brains.  I for one have had it with people telling us that we can’t be both. It’s bullshit, girls.  And when we buy into that nonsense, we lose.

Broadsheet’s Tracy Clark-Flory might well agree.  She also takes Benhold’s thesis to task, and provides some anecdotal counterpoint of her own, by racking up a bunch of quotes from men who not only have no fear of successful women, but actually prefer them.  Here’s one:

Simon, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student, wrote me in an e-mail, “I’m sure successful women pose a threat to some guys’ egos, but that’s just to say that some guys are dicks,” he says, hilariously. “Is this a more general issue, though? Are more guys dicks than we might have thought?” He doesn’t rule out the possibility, but notes that “it seems like a strange point of view if what you’re actually interested in is romantic partnership.”

Right?  We can go on believing the backlash and quite possibly hold ourselves back, or we can call it out for the nonsense that it is and stand tall in our Jimmy Choos or Armani suits.  As Clark-Flory sums up:

Certainly many men will be insurmountably intimidated by women who pull in more dough, but that hardly seems a loss worth mourning. Might it reveal a more fundamental incompatibility in terms of interests, drive, lifestyle or basic ideas about sex and power?

Of course, men are conditioned to bring home the bacon, and it’s tough to escape that sort of rigid social expectation. As a psychoanalyst quoted in Bennhold’s piece says, men who earn less than their female partner “go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner.” If the guys I spoke with are any indication, though, plenty of young men are up to the task — and that is quite a different story from the Times’ cautionary tale.


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We embarked on some personal archeology this past weekend.  Which is to say, we cleaned the garage.

We do this periodically.  What’s interesting is that we get rid of stuff in layers: our own private dig.  We keep things we don’t use, if we have a place for them somewhere, only to finally send them off to junk heaven a few years down the line.  And so every time we tackle this job from hell, we get yet another reminder of the way we were.

Among the things we excavated on Sunday (some of which we chucked, some we saved): An ornate, heavy 70’s-era wrought iron wine opener, the kind with a fat lever, that stands three-feet tall on a bar (Never used it.)  A paper shredder.  (Never used that either)  A year’s worth of paper grocery bags equivalent to all the days we forgot to bring our cloth bags.   Black garbage sacks of deeply unattractive clothing and shoes.  Florist vases.  Coffee mugs with stupid sayings.  The cedar-lined foot locker my husband brought to college when he was 17.  Early edition Nancy Drew books.  My grandmother’s cutglass punch bowl.  Of course we saved this one, though we haven’t made punch since we were newlywed and broke.

(At this point, I should probably mention that just before my husband left for an emergency coffee run, we had a CSI moment when he chucked a box of old files into the overflowing recycling cart — along with his car keys, which fell to the bottom of the bin.  Guess how we got them out.)

But the most revealing was the stuff left over from our family’s youth.  Fisher Price people that came with us twice to Europe.  Boxes of picture books. Plastic trophies with signed softballs.  Cabbage Patch Kids.  A disco ball and lava lamp from one kid’s college days.  A box of hippie posters, Tarot cards and the like  from the other’s.  What we didn’t find — had we thrown these out at the last go-round? — were the numerous boy-band posters or boxes of 80’s era cassette tapes.  Bell Biv Devoe, anyone?

So there you are.  We could wax nostalgic about a lot of these things.  But there’s a lot of blackmail material, too (ahem:  boy bands?)   But here’s the thing.  No matter how embarrassing these artifacts are, how incongruous with our current self-image, we deny at our own peril this roadmap of who we were that has led us to who we are.

All this crystalized for me when I clicked onto Maureen Dowd Wednesday morning and found a reference to Tuesday’s Oprah, which reunited Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, the stars of 1973’s iconic love story, “The Way We Were.”   Surely, you’ve seen the movie.  If not, you probably recognize the lyrics of the theme song?   Misty watercolor memories. Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind…

Anyway, Dowd led me straight to Oprah where I found Redford talking about why he repeatedly turned down one of the most romantic leads ever.  His role, a good-looking preppie and would-be novelist for whom things had always come easy, was too one dimensional, Redford said.   100 percent true to type.  And thus, uninteresting.  He kept saying no — until he found that flaw, that inconsistency that suddenly made the role real.

And here’s the point.  Staying completely true to type, refusing to own our inner geeks, denying those hints of who we were or those embarrassing inconsistencies is not only dull but exhausting, too, when every decision we make — from what we wear to what we do — must conform to the standards set out by some arbiter of taste.  Or type.

Look no further than Facebook, where the individual presentation of self is often calculated and predictable.  One-dimensional.  Which is too bad, really.  Because how much more interesting, for example, is the intellectual who can talk about both Donnie Darko — and The Hangover.  Or the feminist who once played with dolls and can teach you how to hide your under-eye circles.  Or the fashionista who laces up her soccer cleats once a week.  Or the big city scenester who also loves cheesy holiday movies that make her cry.  Or the foodie who loved doughnuts even before they were declared cool.  Or the writer who can freely admit she doesn’t have a novel in the drawer — and likely never will.

Something we heard over and over again when we were researching our book was that one sure route out of the choice conundrum is to know yourself.  Your real self.  That’s not who you’ll find on your Facebook page.  It’s more than likely the self that’s hidden in the back of your garage.

But meanwhile, back to Redford:  The flaw he excavated?  Deep inside the facade of the preppie for whom everything came easy was a guy who was terrified of expectations, especially the ones pushed on him by Streisand’s character, who wanted him to be, well, more.  And there it was.  The crack that made him real.  That gave his character depth.  And there, too, was the clash that ultimately led to one of the most heartbreaking moments in movie history.

Whew.  Cue the music.   (Note:  spoiler alert)

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I’ve been thinking about Shannon’s post from Tuesday about the Mad Men finale, when Don Draper chose Pretty over Smart — even though Smart was herself quite Pretty.  Now, I tend to think that Don went from rock star to weenie when he proposed to his 25-year old secretary on a sex-charged whim:   He rendered himself ordinary, morphing from interesting to cliche faster than you can say “I do,” by buying into that age-old distinction between pretty or smart.  But that’s another story.

Nonetheless, I found it somewhat synchronous that Maureen Dowd’s column in Wednesday’s New York Times also touched on that same dichotomy:  beauty or brains.  Sexy or smart.  Elite or Just Folks.  She starts with a riff on Marilyn Monroe, who was sexy, but wanted to be smart:

The false choice between intellectualism and sexuality in women has persisted through the ages. There was no more poignant victim of it than Marilyn Monroe.

She was smart enough to become the most famous Dumb Blonde in history. Photographers loved to get her to pose in tight shorts, a silk robe or a swimsuit with a come-hither look and a weighty book — a history of Goya or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Heinrich Heine’s poems. A high-brow bunny picture, a variation on the sexy librarian trope. Men who were nervous about her erotic intensity could feel superior by making fun of her intellectually.

Marilyn was not completely in on the joke. Scarred by her schizophrenic mother and dislocated upbringing, she was happy to have the classics put in her hand. What’s more, she read some of them, from Proust to Dostoyevsky to Freud to Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln (given to her by husband Arthur Miller), collecting a library of 400 books.

Miller once called Marilyn “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”

That last one breaks your heart, right?  Dowd then segues nicely to her real point:  the false dichotomy, cooked up by the women of the far right — on Sunday, she dubbed them the Mean Girls — who have set up a political either/or between the Smart Kids and, you know, the Rest of Us:

At least, unlike Paris Hilton and her ilk, the Dumb Blonde of ’50s cinema had a firm grasp on one thing: It was cool to be smart. She aspired to read good books and be friends with intellectuals, even going so far as to marry one. But now another famous beauty with glowing skin and a powerful current, Sarah Palin, has made ignorance fashionable.

You struggle to name Supreme Court cases, newspapers you read and even founding fathers you admire? No problem. You endorse a candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate seat who is the nominee in West Virginia? Oh, well.

At least you’re not one of those “spineless” elites with an Ivy League education, like President Obama, who can’t feel anything. It’s news to Christine O’Donnell that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. It’s news to Joe Miller, whose guards handcuffed a journalist, and to Carl Paladino, who threatened The New York Post’s Fred Dicker, that the First Amendment exists, even in Tea Party Land. Michele Bachmann calls Smoot-Hawley Hoot-Smalley.

We can hoot and laugh all we want.  But I wonder:  How many of us hold ourselves back because somewhere along the line, we bought into life according to the Cool Kids:  Beauty or brains.  Sexy or smart. Straight A’s or prom dates.  Are we still trying to follow the code of some mythical arbiter of high school Cool?  Is that one of the reasons so many women talked themselves out of majoring in math?  Or opted for Physics for Poets?  Or stick with a job in a cube versus one that takes you outside the building because, well, it’s pre-approved?

Do we still let that mythical arbiter of Cool define who we are — and make our choices to fit, whether those choices involve a white picket fence — or Zooey Deschanel bangs and/or a couple or three tattoos?

The tastemakers may change, but the habits die hard.  No wonder we second guess ourselves.  Or, like poor old Don Draper, let silly stereotypes cooked up by Someone Else dictate who we are and who we want to be —  rather than making the discovery on our own.

If we did make that inner trek, we might find out that we’ve got beauty AND brains.  We’re sexy AND smart.  And, you know, we’re even good at math.

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Weren’t we all?

I came across that line Wednesday in a piece by Maureen Dowd, who quoted Michelle Obama as saying that her husband had spent so much time alone growing up that it was as if he had been raised by wolves.

Love that phrase, don’t you?

Think about it and you realize that, in a twisted kind of way, we’ve all been raised by wolves. As women in this new millennium, most of us are going it alone right now, figuring out how to navigate new and unfamiliar turf, without really knowing the rules once we leave the woods.

Growing pains? You bet. And you see them everywhere you look, in a variety of flavors. Here’s just a taste. In a piece in The Nation on the upcoming confirmation of Elena Kagan, Patricia J. Williams predicts that Kagan’s success as a lawyer will be characterized as “unwomanly” because, of course, success in such fields is equated with testosterone. She reminds us both how far we’ve come — and how far we’ve yet to go, noting that gender stereotyping is sometimes embedded in the language:

Forty years after the birth of modern feminism, we are still not able to think about women who attain certain kinds of professional success as normatively gendered. Officially, the English language does not have gendered nouns. Yet it seems that we do invest certain words with gendered exclusivity—nurse, fireman, CEO, lawyer—if only as a matter of general parlance. There’s a story that used to be ubiquitous about thirty years ago: a father rushes his son to the hospital after a bicycle accident. The boy is whisked into Emergency and ends up on the operating table. The surgeon looks down at the boy and gasps, “Oh, my God! This is my son!” The story would end with the question, “How is that possible?” Much puzzlement would ensue until the “Aha!” moment: the surgeon was the boy’s mother. In that era, the likelihood of a surgeon being female was so negligible that divining the answer became a kind of “test” of radical feminist sensibility.

Then there’s this, Vivia Chen’s piece from Legalweek.com that reminds us how much of our lives are caught up in trying to navigate that odious term called work-life balance. She reports on an interview with Harvard Law School grad Angie Kim whose sprint up the corporate ladder took a five year detour when her second child became sick with an undiagnosed illness. A few months back, Kim did some research and found that the majority of the women in her law school class had left the fast track. But the interesting thing (another sign of shifting terrain?) is what she told Chen:

“The ‘mommy track’ was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings. But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles. A senior partner who brought many clients to her law firm, for example, now works 15 to 40 hours per week, mainly out of her home and on her own schedule… The author of a best-selling book on negotiations launched her own conflict resolution firm with about 15 lawyer and consultants. She works from home during school hours and after bedtime and takes July and August off.”

Kim argues that “the line between the fast track and the mommy track is blurring,” and that flexibility “is infiltrating more and more jobs and replacing traditional work values – long hours, face time – as the new workplace ideal.”

Positive signs? Could be, especially when you consider that as our workplace numbers rise — and with it our economic clout — we girls are in a better position to push for changes that work for us. Let’s look at Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic entitled “The End of Men.

What would a society in which women are on top look like? We already have an inkling. This is the first time that the cohort of Americans ages 30 to 44 has more college-educated women than college-educated men, and the effects are upsetting the traditional Cleaver-family dynamics. In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Now the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in 10 mothers—many of them single mothers—are the primary breadwinners in their families. The whole question of whether mothers should work is moot, argues Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “because they just do. This idealized family—he works, she stays home—hardly exists anymore.”

The terms of marriage have changed radically since 1970. Typically, women’s income has been the main factor in determining whether a family moves up the class ladder or stays stagnant. And increasing numbers of women—unable to find men with a similar income and education—are forgoing marriage altogether. In 1970, 84 percent of women ages 30 to 44 were married; now 60 percent are. In 2007, among American women without a high-school diploma, 43 percent were married. And yet, for all the hand-wringing over the lonely spinster, the real loser in society—the only one to have made just slight financial gains since the 1970s—is the single man, whether poor or rich, college-educated or not. Hens rejoice; it’s the bachelor party that’s over.

Rosin doesn’t mention things like the wage gap or pervasive gender stereotyping (see above) that effectively quashes our numbers right now. But she does make an important point: if higher education is the “gateway to economic success” as well as a prereq for life in the middle class, clearly women in the not-too-distant future are going to be calling their own shots.

What those shots might be, however, is what’s so hard to figure out. In “Doing Grown-up Wrong” on siren.com, Allison Hantschel asks “what we do when we don’t have what the Jonese have and worse, don’t even want it?” What she knows she doesn’t want: a big house in the country, a bunch of kids, a climb up the corporate ladder. What she does want? That, she doesn’t quite get.

Which brings us back to the wolves. We’ve been raised in one world and suddenly we find ourselves in another, roadmap not included. What now? Insert howl here.

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Men are single. Women, on the other hand, are unmarried. And that, ladies, is how language screws us once again

All of which came to light Wednesday via Maureen Dowd, who used the current flap about the sexuality of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan to note how quickly women go from “single” — read: sexy, fun and available — to “unmarried,” a fate somewhat akin to that of Mary in “A Wonderful Life” had George Bailey never been born. (That’s her, up in the corner. Note the glasses.)

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock this past week, it’s been suggested that Kagan, 50 and never married, must then be a lesbian. The WSJ even went so far as to use a page one photo of her playing softball, wink wink. All of which prompted Kagan’s friends, the White House, and Kagan herself to assert that she is straight.

At which point, she became unmarried. As in, poor thing. Now, take a man in similar circumstances. He, of course, would still be single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He doesn’t even have to be remotely attractive — Henry Kissinger, anyone? — for the girls to come flocking. But without addressing the double standard because, you know, it makes us too angry, let’s go straight to Dowd, who is herself, by the way, single:

When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?

As my friend Carol Lee, a Politico reporter, observes: “It seems like a cruel distinction and terrifying crossover.”

Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.

Men, generally more favored by nature as they age, can be single at all ages. But often, for women, once you’re 40 or 50, or simply beyond childbearing age, you’re no longer single. You’re unmarried — meaning it isn’t your choice to be alone. There are post-50 exceptions. Consider celebrity examples: Samantha in “Sex and the City,” Dana Delany, Susan Sarandon and Madonna are seen as sexily single.

But if you have a bit of a weight problem, a bad haircut, a schlumpy wardrobe, the assumption is that you’re undesirable, unwanted — and unmarried.

All of which leads to the current Kagan narrative, writes Dowd:

Kagan has told a friend in the West Wing that she is not gay, just lonely. Even so, that doesn’t mean her sherpas in the White House, in their frantic drive to dismiss the gay rumors, should be spinning a narrative around that most hoary of stereotypes: a smart, ambitious woman who threw herself into her work, couldn’t find a guy, threw up her hands, and threw herself further into her work — and in the process went from single to unmarried.

It’s inexplicable, given that this should be Kagan’s hour of triumph as potentially only the fourth woman ever to serve on the highest court.

Here we go again with the pre-feminist junk: We women can be smart, we can be accomplished, we can be ambitious. But we can’t be all three — and married, too. After all, what man wants a woman who sports a better title, matches him paycheck for paycheck, and can beat him at chess?

And have a family? Fuhgeddabout it.

I can’t help thinking back to the mid-80s when a media misinterpretation of a combined Harvard-Yale study led to headlines and magazine cover stories that proclaimed that unmarried women who had reached the age of 40 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever find a mate. True story. The media reports, I mean. The study’s findings, at least the way they were reported? Not so much. In fact, Newsweek did a mea culpa twenty years later — another cover story that found that many of those single women the magazine had profiled back in the day not only had not been killed by terrorists — fancy that — but indeed had found their soulmates. Even raised families.

And yet, the idea lingers. Or continues to reignite: If women are too smart, if they are are too ambitious, if they let themselves get too old, they better watch out. They’ll go from single to unmarried in a heartbeat. And we all know what that means. Fun’s over, girls. Time to start raising kittycats.

The other subtext of this Kagan stuff, of course, is this: you can do anything, even sit on the Supreme Court, but really, what does it matter if you don’t have a guy?

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Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask!

How many times have you used that very line, psyching up a friend before sending her into the field of battle, whether the battlefield be the boss’ office over a raise or a promotion or just a couple of days off, or the next cube over, daytime home of The Guy, the one she wants to get to know a little bit better–preferably in a setting with more favorable lighting? Dishing it out is one thing, but how often do we take that advice ourselves?

I bring this up because, this weekend, an Undecided reader shot me a link to a story entitled “Get What You Want: How to Make the Big Ask,” and the piece in question made me think. In it, the author Andrea Buchanan recounts an epic ask from her own life: minding her own business at LAX, en route to San Francisco for a party celebrating the publication of her first book, Buchanan spotted NYT columnist Maureen Dowd–a pretty serious Boldface-Name Sighting to begin with, made more so because Dowd happens to be one of Buchanan’s personal heroes. She wanted to tell Dowd how much she admired her–she wanted to invite her to the book party… And she did. (Via handwritten note. But still, points for balls ovaries!) And lo: Dowd not only came to the party, she left the party a couple of copies of Buchanan’s book heavier… and invited Buchanan to lunch! Talk about a risk that paid off. Here’s what Buchanan has to say about it:

I shudder to think of what an awesome connection I would have missed making had I not worked up the nerve to approach Maureen. But all too often, fear gets in the way of bravery. Think about it: When was the last time you asked for something with big risks and potentially big consequences?

…Here are a few things I’ve learned about asking: The minute you’re afraid to ask for something is when you should do it. It’s nice to offer something in return, even if it’s just a compliment or a kind gesture. It also helps to take a few deep breaths and imagine the worst possible outcome. Usually, it’s simply getting a no, which is not exactly life threatening.

I love that she says that the minute you’re afraid to ask is exactly when you should, because, while I don’t think fear is like guilt in terms of uselessness, I do think it’s one of those poor, misunderstood emotions that isn’t always what it seems–and that, just because a situation inspires fear doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth being afraid of. Maybe the purpose of that fear isn’t necessarily to power an about-face followed by a prompt escape; maybe it’s just a little note to self: take notice of this, tread carefully here, be conscious now.

Now, I confess, I’m a bit of a daredevil. I’ve been known to park in red zones, jump out of planes, try my friend’s homemade kimchee. And perhaps I’m a rarity among my gender in that way–a monster story in last week’s New York Magazine suggested that testosterone and risk-taking are pretty clearly linked… and that the whole Wall Street meltdown may have been avoided had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters. I don’t know about all that, but I do know that, putting ourselves out there, identifying what we want and asking for it is, indeed, a risk. But maybe there’s a little bit of a lesson to be learned from the adrenaline junkies of the world, articulated oh-so-well by that vintage Nike ad campaign: maybe all that’s standing between ourselves and the objects or opportunities of our desire is a simple decision to Just Do It. Just ask.

What’s the worst that could happen?

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