Posts Tagged ‘Women’s Movement’

The strangest thing popped into my inbox the other day: a BCBG ad for this season’s statement jewelry. Front and center were a couple of iterations of what you see on your left: a knuckle ring. I kid you not.

Look closely and you’ll find that the “ring” is actually two of them linking your fingers together on the inside, with a bejeweled bar across the top of two fingers on the outside. It appears to be an ironic riff on the brass knuckles of gangster movie fame.

If your education in 1930’s films has been neglected, brass knuckles were four linked metal rings with a bar of concealed weight that, when the bad guy made a fist, gave him a sneaky and powerful punch.

Back to BCBG, couple the knuckle rings with the must-have shoes of the season – platform gladiator sandals – and you have a look that screams power. I’m going somewhere with this, but it probably isn’t where you think. But before we move on, let me just say that I have never been one to judge a feminist for her fashion. In fact, I applaud feminists who aren’t afraid to wear pink (when it’s the new black), who don’t shy away from lipstick, who dress to please themselves, whether it’s sensible shoes or sexy stilettos, khaki pants or trendy little pencil skirts. Either/or is in itself is a sign of power: What we wear is more than just utility.

In fact, I remember back when I was a new mom, with a pretty sweet free-lancing gig that allowed me to work from home when Shannon was a baby. Every once in a while, when the workload built up, my boss would go sideways, call me up and rant that either I did a full-on nine-to-five in the office everyday or the arrangement was kaput. At which point, I would call the babysitter and speed to the office, where I always managed to talk myself back into working from home. At such meetings, I always wore the same pair of don’t-mess-with-me high heeled boots.

I am the first to say that my boss never noticed my boots. They meant nothing to him. But they meant a lot to me. On those days, they gave me a sense of power (and, I confess, height) which for some reason gave me the juice to speak up.

Which brings us back to the knuckle rings and all the other overt Wonder Woman fashion statements: are they signs of power for women who have seized it – or props for women who still feel they have none? Here comes my point.

For too long women have been told they have no voice, that they’ve been silenced by the patriarchy. Which was one hell of a wake-up call and rallying cry back in the early days of the women’s movement. And maybe it’s still true to a certain extent. But what I wonder is if one of the unintended consequences of the rhetoric is that many women have come to believe it — and have silenced themselves, convinced that no one will listen.

Or feel that that their only source of power is in trappings like knuckle rings.

Which was why I was so proud of Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball, the young Newsweek women who were willing to bite the hand that feeds them in the blistering piece entitled “Are We There Yet?” (Answer: No) that Shannon wrote about on Tuesday. It wasn’t only what they wrote that so impressed me, but the fact that they had the guts to write it. That, to quote my favorite VP, is a big, fucking deal.

What’s also a pretty big deal is the fact that Newsweek ran with the story. It’s front and center and last I heard, Bennett, Ellison and Ball are still employed.

I see two lessons here. First, we’ve got a long way to go before the work of the women’s movement is done. But second is the subtext: we do indeed have a voice. We just have to use it.

And we probably don’t need knuckle rings to do so. Unless, of course, we think they’re cool.

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Syndicated Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, who brought 40 years of insight, wisdom and humor to her coverage of Women-with-a-capital-Dub, bid her vast audience farewell in a New Year’s Day column in which she wrote that she “was letting herself go.”

Hate it when that happens.

You can’t blame her from wanting to step back. Forty years of cranking out insightful prose without a break — 750 words at a shot, all backed by extensive reporting — is the stuff of Superwoman. But still. You have to wonder who will pick up the mantle, a rational and national voice, urging us to take ourselves seriously and to keep up the fight for change. If anyone made our struggles for equality at home and at work accessible to everyperson — even men — it was Goodman. You had to be operating with slightly less than half a brain not to recognize the sense in all she wrote. That’s how change happens.

A few days ago, she gave a thoughtful exit interview to the Poynter Institute’s Mallory Jean Tenore, who wrote about it here. Goodman, wrote Tenore, was an inspiration, “proof that the written word has power — to challenge the status quo, shape ideas and ultimately create change. ”

A lot of those ideas had to do with the status of women. In a Christmas Eve column, Goodman wrote of what she had seen in her 40 years of tracking feminism — all the while prodding us to consider how much we still need to get done. If she were to grade the movement, she writes, she’d give it an “incomplete.”

How to sum up the time and distance we’ve traveled? Advance and backlash? Forward march and stall-out?

Today, half the law students and medical students are female. But only 15 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. We had the first serious woman candidate run for president … and lose. We had a mother of five, a governor and a Title IX baby run for vice president … as a conservative.

The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated because people were scared into believing that women could end up in combat. Now nearly a quarter-million women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 120 have died, 650 have been wounded. But still no ERA.

What a story this has been to cover. Women now hold the majority of jobs … because men have lost more of them. Women earn six out of 10 college degrees … yet earn 77 cents for every male dollar.

A woman is now speaker of the House, but there are only 73 women in that House and 17 in the Senate. At 60, Meryl Streep is playing a romantic lead, yet girdles have been resurrected as “body shapers” and girls are forced into ever-more narrow standards of beauty. Young women grow up believing they can be anything they want, just don’t call them by the F-word: feminist.

My generation — WOMEN — thought the movement would advance on two legs. With one, we’d kick down the doors closed to us. With the other, we’d walk through, changing society for men and women.

It turned out that it was easier to kick down the doors than to change society. It was easier to fit into traditional male life patterns than to change those patterns. We’ve had more luck winning the equal right to 70-hour weeks than we’ve had selling the equal value of care-giving. We have yet to solve the problem raised at the outset: Who will take care of the family?

Goodman continues on the family track in her interview with Tenore, suggesting that the personal is still the political:

Goodman noted that although the surge in mom blogs has helped provide moms with a forum for discussion, they sometimes fall short of connecting the problems mothers face with potential solutions. They might, for instance, address the difficulty of balancing work and childcare but not touch upon how companies’ inflexible hours and public childcare contribute to this problem.

“A lot of women writing mom blogs are very conscious of the difficulty of balancing work and family, but a lot have been driving back to ‘my family has to solve it all on their own,’ ” Goodman said. “My generation was much more interested in figuring out a way for a public solution.”

Having raised a daughter during her years as a columnist, Goodman sympathizes with journalists who juggle work and motherhood. As a grandmother, she watches her own daughter now face the same kind of struggles that she once endured and realizes that sometimes, something has to give.

“In life you have a lot of balls in the air. You’re trying to do a good job, you’re trying to raise a family, you’re trying to take care of yourself,” Goodman said. “On any given day, you’ve probably dropped one of them. But if over the course of a long time you’ve gotten a ‘B’ in every area, that’s still honors.”

All of which brings to mind a quote from a good friend, Dr. Kathy Hull, Psy.D., the founder of The George Mark Children’s House, the first freestanding hospice and respite residential center in the U.S. for children with life-limiting illnesses. Hull was one of four winners of the 2009 Minerva Award, given to those women in honor of “their service on the frontlines of humanity.” The quote was one of 365 that appeared in “Tips for Life,” a calendar book published in conjunction with California First Lady Maria Shriver’s “The Women’s Conference 2009.” :

My mother was always quick to remind each of her six offspring that “Life isn’t always fair, honey.” I would add to her sage advice: Use your resources — intellectual, physical, spiritual and financial — to level the playing field.

A level playing field, at work, at home, in social structures. That’s all we’re after. So much to ask? Like Goodman, if we keep our eyes on the prize, I think we can do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m with ya, sister.

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