In this week’s Wednesday Five, we pay homage to our own popular series “Women Making a Difference” with stories that are getting lots of traffic around the web about five groundbreaking women of our time—Elena Ferrante, Steffi Graf, Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, Oprah Winfrey, and Gloria Steinem.
We’ve heard and sung the praises of Italian writer Elena Ferrante (a pen name) and her Neapolitan novels. Earlier this year, our Eleanor Foa Dienstag wrote about the author, “Ferrante’s extended narrative is not only a literary triumph, but a feminist one as well. Rarely, in contemporary fiction, do we find a sequence of novels whose main focus is the friendship—from childhood to middle age—of two women.” Now that “The Story of the Lost Child,” the final volume of the writer’s series is out, the praise has transitioned to a sophisticated critical analysis of what Ferrante has done for 21st century literature. Writing for the The New Yorker in the artilce, “Elena Ferrante’s New Book: Art Wins,” Joan Acocella writes, definitively:
This, Ferrante seems to say, is what happens in the world of women, and though much of the book is devoted to women’s more frequently discussed problems—such as how they are supposed to go out to work and raise the kids at the same time, and, if they do have work, work they care about, how come this still seems to them secondary to their relationship with a man?—it is the exploration of the women’s mental underworld that makes the book so singular an achievement in feminist literature; indeed, in all literature.
She was 16 the first time she beat Chris Evert and Navratilova, 17 when she won her first major, and 18 when she became no. 1. She turned 19 the summer of the year that would define her dominance of the sport.
Such is the beginning story of Steffi Graf. That story, of the trajectory of her career, of her life post-tennis, and of the privacy she guards so deeply now, is beautifully written by Louisa Thomas for Grantland. Here’s an excerpt:
She gives the occasional interview, insisting on her happiness as a mother, as a wife, but for the most part she avoids the press. She didn’t disappear entirely. She posts pictures of hamsters and Little League fields on social media. She makes money, has endorsements, plays the occasional exhibition. . . She follows tennis, she told Isaacson, “from a real distance.” When the WTA celebrated its 40th anniversary, she did not attend. . . Graf has done little to protect, let alone promote, her legacy. But it isn’t quite humility that she projects. It’s something more painful and shy.
Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee
We love to celebrate women in medicine, including this groundbreaking woman: Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee (sister of the entertainer Diana Ross of The Supremes) who in 1993 was the first African-American woman to be appointed dean of a United States medical school. She remained dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine of Ohio University until 2001. The National Institute of Health’s (NIH) profile on her reveals that “During her tenure there, she reformulated the entire course of study, and drafted a women’s curriculum, earning a reputation as a change agent.” Watch a video of her life’s work here and see more from the NIH exhibition , “Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians.”
A series of profiles at Fast Company is questioning how several key leaders both fail and succeed at productivity. And while so much has already been written about Oprah Winfrey’s business acumen, we found this particular article refreshing as it unpacks how she course-corrected what she thought she already knew about successful television. In this fascinating long read, Winfrey talks about the beauty of un-learning, the importance of putting in place a deeply trusted team, and a concept she calls “radical focus.” Read the full article here.
In the current issue of The New Yorker, Jane Kramer tells us that after fifty years, Gloria Steinem “is still at the forefront of the feminist cause.” In a poignantly written article on the women’s rights icon, Kramer gets to Steinem’s own uncertainty about her status:
“Steinem finished the book in February this year, or, as she puts it, “seventeen deadlines late,” and in March she celebrated her eighty-first birthday, with a small dinner cooked by a group of friends. “A relief!” she told me. “My eightieth birthday had gone on for a year. People were starting to think that the movement began with me and, worse, was going to end with me.”
And when asked about her legacy, about who will carry on her life’s work, she responds:
“People are always asking me, ‘Who will you pass the torch to?’ The question makes me angry. There is no one torch—there are many torches—and I’m using my torch to light other torches. There shouldn’t have been a ‘first’ Gloria Steinem, and there won’t be a last one.”
Read the full article here.
Last week, Alexandra MacAaron wrote about the empowering Wonder Women coming this Fall to network TV’s list of shows. In this iteration of The Wednesday Five, we are following suit and heading to the big screen. For the The Netflix Five, we share with you five films featuring compelling women (and girls) characters—all newly streaming on Netflix this month.
Miss Julie (Directed by Liv Ullmann, 2014)
Miss Julie is based on the play of the same title by August Strindberg and stars Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton. It had its world premiere in the Special Presentations section of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The story is set in 1890, in Fermanagh, during the course of a midsummer night. Julie (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of the Count, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, attempts to seduce her father’s valet, John (Colin Farrell). The affair quickly goes to some dark places, with power and class playing a key role.
About Elly (Directed by Asghar Farhadi, 2009)
About Elly is a gripping mystery set among a group of old friends, including Elly, on a holiday retreat. With the return of their close friend Ahmad from Germany, a group of former college pals decide to reunite for a weekend outing by the Caspian Sea. But seemingly trivial lies, which start accumulating from the moment the group arrives at the seashore, suddenly swing round and come back full force when one afternoon Elly suddenly vanishes. Her mysterious disappearance sets in motion a series of deceptions and revelations that threaten to shatter everything they hold dear.
Madame Bovary (Directed by Sophie Barthes, 2014)
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Gustave Flaubert. This “Madame Bovary” begins as teenage Emma who is packing up her belongings and preparing to leave the convent to marry the man her farmer father has arranged as her husband: country doctor Charles Bovary. But life in the small, provincial town soon makes her miserable. An affair emboldens her and gives her glimpse of another kind of life.
Philomena (Directed by Stephen Frears, 2013)
Philomena is based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a 2009 book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith. Lee was just a teenager when she met a boy at a fair. Motherless from a young age, she had been raised by nuns and knew nothing of sex or birth control. When she became pregnant, her father sent her to the convent at Roscrea, where she was forced to give her baby up for adoption (the babies were actually given to wealthy U.S. families, presumably because of large donations) and work for four years in a laundry to repay their keep. Eventually building a life and family for herself, she never forgot her child. Fifty years later, with the help of Sixsmith, she uncovered where he was taken and who he had grown up to be. But it was too late. Her son, Michael Hess, a closeted gay man who had risen to be chief counsel to President Bush, had already died of AIDS. (Read the full Women’s Voices review). Released on Netflix on September 22.
Moonrise Kingdom (Directed by Wes Anderson, 2012)
Above my desk, I have a shadowbox frame containing one of my most cherished possessions. In it (alongside a curvy action figure that an art director I work with once gave me) is the very first issue of Ms. magazine, inscribed to me by Gloria Steinem. Under the masthead reads the headline “Wonder Woman for President.”
Whether you’re a Hillary fan or not, I think we can all agree with that sentiment.
Three years after Ms. launched, ABC created an action series around the Amazon princess turned American superhero. The series was later picked up by CBS, the executives of which changed the setting from WWII to the 1970s for budget reasons. It ran a total of three seasons.
It’s hard to believe that it has been 40 years since Lynda Carter first transformed herself from Navy Yeomen Diana Prince into the statuesque (and almost impossibly shapely) Wonder Woman. At the time, it was a refreshing change from more typical damsel in distress stories. Not only did Wonder Woman have super powers (and cool accessories), but she also saved handsome Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner of Carol Burnett Show fame) on more than one occasion. It was 1975, and she was a solid role model for a preteen women’s libber.
Whether it reflects a renewed commitment to feminism, a sense that our society needs to be saved, or simply shrewd economics — the comic book industry did $935 million in sales last year — all three broadcast networks are investing in super powerful females this fall.
In Blindspot (Mondays at 10:00 pm on NBC premiering September 21st), a mysterious duffel bag is left unattended in Times Square. Just as the bomb squad is about to prophylactically detonate it, a beautiful, naked amnesiac emerges. She’s covered from head to toe in tattoos, including the name of a handsome FBI agent (how convenient). The ink must be deciphered in order to thwart a terrorist plot and, presumably, uncover the woman’s identity. Lest we think she is merely a human roadmap or the victim of some fraternity prank, Jane Doe soon reveals herself to be a trained assassin — she may have lost her “narrative memory,” but she definitely remembers how to kick bad guy butt.
The show stars Jaimie Alexander, known to action adventure fans as Lady Sif, warrior goddess of Asgard from the Thor movies and Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. Other cast members include Sullivan Stapleton, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Rob Brown and Audrey Esparza.
Also on NBC, you’ll find Heroes Reborn (Thursdays at 8:00 pm starting September 24th), an extension of the popular series Heroes, which ran from 2006 to 2010 and helped launch the careers of Hayden Panettiere, Kristen Bell and Zachary Quinto. Billed as a 13-part miniseries, Heroes Reborn tells the story of a new group of “Evos,” people with evolved abilities, coming to terms with their powers in a world that sees them as dangerous threats. Blamed for a terrorist attack that leveled a city in Texas, Evos are hunted by the authorities, big business and off-the-grid vigilantes. Embracing their destiny, clearing their name and saving the world? All in a day’s work.
Both the network and the show’s creators are being very secretive about the new group of heroes, but they’re promoting at least two young women who seem to have superpowers up their sleeves. “Coming from a very sheltered upbringing, a bold and ethereal teenager, Malina (Danika Yarosh), has been told she is destined for greatness. In Tokyo, a quiet and unique young woman, Miko (Kiki Sukezane), is trying to track down her missing father while hiding an extraordinary secret that will make her a force to be reckoned with.”
Don’t expect any answers yet, but the Heroes Reborn trailer certainly sets the mood.
Quantico on ABC (Sundays at 10:00 pm, starting September 27th) involves another hero falsely accused of terrorism. (Do we notice a trend here, ladies?) In this case, Alex Parrish is a promising new FBI recruit, one of the agency’s “best, brightest and most vetted.” Arrested for treason, she escapes and races against the clock to uncover the real terrorists before they strike again.
Bollywood’s Priyanka Chopra stars as Alex and praises the show for its diversity, inclusion and female empowerment. “It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Indian or whatever my ethnicity is,” she explains, describing her character as a ‘female Jason Bourne.’ “It gives females an opportunity to be equal with the boys, and I think that’s really progressive.”
Call me a traditionalist, but the girl power show I’m most looking forward to is on CBS. As its ads tease, “It’s not a bird. It’s not a plane. It’s not a man.” It’s Supergirl. (Mondays at 8:30 pm, beginning October 26.)
The show is based on the DC Comics character Kara Zor-El, Superman’s ingenuous cousin, but it’s added a contemporary career girl twist. Ambitious young Kara is frustrated fetching coffee for her dragon lady boss. Like many young women, she worries that she’s not living up to her potential. It’s just that she has a bit more potential than her peers.
Melissa Benoist, an earnest and talented young actress best known for being the show choir’s good girl on Glee, fought hard to land the leading role. And from the clips CBS has shared, she looks like she’s loving it, even doing many of her own stunts, including flying. Calista Flockhart (once Time’s “new face of feminism as Ally McBeal) returns to the small screen as Cat Grant, media mogul and superhuman bee-yotch. The cast is rounded out by Mehcad Brooks as James (no longer Jimmy) Olsen and Chuyler Leigh, as well as musical theater charmer Jeremy Jordan.
Television has always provided escape from real-world worries. And, in the last few years, it’s given us some strong and memorable women in shows like The Good Wife, Scandal, Veep, and the more recent Madam Secretary and How To Get Away with Murder. But, with all of today’s troubles, lawyers, stateswomen and professors may not be enough. Maybe we need someone a little faster, stronger and more invincible. It’s nice to see so many super-powered women on the networks this fall.
Now, if we can just get one into the White House. . .
In this week’s Wednesday 5: Gloria Steinem shows us what 8o looks like in deeds and images; Arianna Huffington on her new book, Thrive; what happens when a mother gives back an adopted son; and happy birthday, Aretha Franklin.
Gloria Steinem, Living Out an Unlived Life
The face of contemporary feminism turned 80 yesterday. Of the many media tributes she has been given, we were particularly moved by Barbara Lovenheim’s write-up in NYCitywoman. “An Award for My Mother” neatly captures the story of Gloria’s life, from her childhood years caring for a mentally ill mother to her continuing activism on behalf of women worldwide. Most poignantly it conveys Gloria’s acute sorrow at the constricted life of her mother, Ruth—an intelligent, ambitious woman who longed to be a journalist. Like many women of her generation, Ruth was quenched by her lack of opportunity to flourish in the working world. Accepting the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Salurians (an organization of veteran New York City journalists) last year, Gloria declared, “What really stirs me up is the memory of my mother who, when I was very little, began to show me how to take a piece of typing paper, fold it into threes, so it was in columns. Later I realized it was what she had done to take notes before there were reporter’s notebooks. And indeed when she tried to be a journalist, her very first writing had to be under a man’s name, otherwise she couldn’t be published . . . . I suspect that, like many women here, I am living out the unlived life of my mother. And this is a huge step forward. We should be proud of this, but it’s also true that we need to move forward to a time when parents live out their own dreams. And children don’t feel that they have to carry on in order to make up for lost talents and lost lives.” No one could have done more to bring about that time than Gloria Steinem.
A Life Lived in Images: 80 Glorious Years
Since most of her life has been lived on the public stage, almost every move Gloria Steinem has made has been documented. Head over to The Daily Beast, which, in honor of Gloria’s 80th year, has put together a gallery of some her most iconic moments as she marked several milestones in her life.
Go Beyond Surviving, and Thrive
Arianna Huffington has a new book, Thrive, to help us redefine success on our own terms. Here she sits down with Marie Forleo of MarieTV to talk about the importance of sleep, the challenges created by our perfectionistic tendencies, and our own struggles with time.
When a Mother Gives Back an Adopted Son
Last week, Yahoo Shine published the story of the 41-year-old mother who gave back her adopted son because, according to her, “I was committing the worst maternal sin: I felt like I loved one child less than the others.” As you can imagine, the story kicked up a lot of dust. The mother shared several other reasons why she returned the 5-year-old Haitian boy, most of those reasons resting on “attachment disorder,” a broad term used to describe an inability to build meaningful bonds. One form of the disorder can develop when a small child feels repeatedly abandoned or powerless—things it’s not hard to imagine a kid in an orphanage might experience. But Rebecca Carroll at xojane.com counters:
Happy Birthday, Aretha Franklin!
While Gloria Steinem is showing us what 80 looks like, the Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin, is showing us what 72 looks and sounds like. The folks at The Huffington Post put together this awesome YouTube playlist featuring all of Aretha’s best songs. Rock on!
This is International Women’s Day, a day set aside to reflect on, and honor, women’s long struggle for equality. Its website, a hub for information about IWD events taking place around the world, explains the founding impulse: “The day has been celebrated since 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.” The site’s motto: “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights”— Gloria Steinem.
For us at Women’s Voices for Change, every day is international women’s day. We care about the oppression that women suffer around the world. We are awed by all the brave activists who dare to confront the cultures that cripple their lives. We rejoice when persistence and pluck bring even a slight easing of the bonds. And we are enriched by learning about the lives of talented, far-seeing women from other nations.
This past year, we’ve followed the stories of . . .
• Miriam Makeba—a documentary about the singer and activist from South Africa
• 91-year-old Brazilian actress and singer Bibí Ferreira, arguably “the single most important theater actor in Brazil”
• The launching of a new magazine to tell global women’s stories. Valerie will feature “female writers, bloggers, and photographers who will share stories of ‘inspiring women and feature economic, social and political issues impacting lives of women across the globe.’”
• The world’s largest women’s university—Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University—which happens to be in Saudia Arabia.
• An American doctor who works with local African surgeons to repair women’s pelvic disorders in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.
• A tribute to Edna Adan, “the Muslim Mother Teresa,” who founded the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland. “It was upon retiring as World Health Organization Adviser for Maternal and Child Health that she decided to take action about the desperate conditions that women in her country have endured. She traded in her many pairs of $800 shoes for one pair of rubber sandals and invested all her assets to build the institution that operates today in one of the neighborhoods in Hargeisa that was devastated by the civil war with Somalia.”
• The passage of Saudi Arabia’s first law criminalizing domestic violence at home and in the workplace
• The scourge of obstetric fistula—the shattering result of obstructed childbirth that is endemic to developing countries where women get too little medical care—as seen through the eyes of an American surgeon
• New Delhi’s first all-female taxi service, “Women on Wheels,” whose owner, Meenu Vadera, is “solving multiple problems simultaneously: she’s providing jobs for resource-poor women and helping women feel safer.”
• A milestone for Saudi Arabian women: The first Saudia Arabian woman to reach the top of Mount Everest
• The documentary Girl Rising. “One girl with courage is a revolution,” affirms the trailer, and the documentary proceeds to follow the stories of “nine fiercely brave girls from nine countries—India, Nepal, Egypt, Peru, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone”
• Shabana Basij-Rasikh—who will never forget the day when her father told her joyfully, “The Taliban have left and you can go to a real school now”—dares to educate Afghan girls
• The No. 1 killer of girls 15 to 19 globally is . . . pregnancy and childbirth
• ‘While in some parts of India, many expectant parents still say they’d prefer bearing sons, members of the Piplantri village, in the western state of Rajasthan, are breaking this trend by celebrating the birth of each baby girl in a way that benefits everyone. For every female child that’s born, the community gathers to plant 111 fruit trees in her honor in the village common.’
• How substituting cash payments for food ration cards has benefited women in India.
• Woman to Woman in Morocco: Beyond the Hijab.
• Women in Saudia Arabia are not allowed to drive, but the government is now allowing Saudi Arabian women “to ride motorbikes and bicycles in certain parks and recreational areas.” They must be accompanied by a male relative or guardian and must be dressed in the full Islamic head-to-toe abaya.
• And today we bring you some moderately heartening news from Equality Now, the nonprofit that has, for more than 20 years been working to change laws and traditions around the world that repress women. Its Equality Action Network issues occasional, carefully researched “Action Alerts” that spark its 35,000 volunteers and organizations in 160 countries to put pressure—through letter-writing campaigns and petitions—on high officials of the nations where the abuse is going on.
Equality Now’s network, along with diplomats from Western countries and other activist organizations, has fiercely contested a bill before the Afghan parliament that would have made it impossible for family members to testify against each other in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, and forced marriage. “That,” explained The Guardian, “would halt prosecution in most cases of violence against women.” In mid-February, President Hamid Karzai sent this part of the bill, Article 26, back for revision. So far, then, so good. And so it goes in the fight for women’s rights: There is, occasionally, a semi-step forward. And advocacy has a lot to do with it.
To Barbie or not to Barbie. That was the question.
That, and whether to allow my preschooler to wear all pink, all the time, complete with elaborate hairdos, jeweled tiaras, and a tiny feather boa. We had so much glitter going on—all over the house, all over her, all over me—that a coworker once asked if I was moonlighting as a stripper.
Was this all some cosmic joke? The woman who’d had short hair since fourth grade and never wore a skirt had somehow become the mother of the girliest-girl of all.
As a new and very busy mom, I learned to choose my battles. Were Barbie dolls really as evil as my progressive friends kept telling me? Would Disney Princesses turn her brains to mush? Was it hurting anyone that my child wanted to be a magic-kitty-fairy for Halloween and not Eleanor Roosevelt? While she loved accessorizing (and absolutely refused to wear anything as blah as blue jeans), she wasn’t hurting in the self-esteem department. She could run faster and was better at math than any of her male classmates. In fact, she had no doubt whatsoever that girls were superior. Here, for your reading pleasure, is the poem that she and her cohorts used to chant in the playground.
Girls go to college to get more knowledge,
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.
On the one hand, I applauded this display of “girl power”; it was immeasurably important to me that my daughter grow up to be a feminist. I’ve identified myself as a Feminist with a capital F since third grade. My best friend’s mother was celebrated author and women’s health activist Barbara Seaman (The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, Free and Female). This amazing woman encouraged my creative writing and introduced me to Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Betty Friedan. In 1972, at the politically astute age of 10, my friend and I campaigned for Shirley Chisholm.
On the other hand, the little poem didn’t seem to be in the spirit of Steinem’s definition: A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men. I was appalled (after I had a good laugh). Clearly I had some work to do.
So, I began to look for teachable moments. Somehow I sensed (rightly, I’m now certain) that lectures would earn nothing more than that potent demonstration of daughterly disdain, the dreaded eye roll. I had to be careful not to get on too many soapboxes. I had to show her, not tell her, what it means to be a feminist.
My challenge became tougher as my daughter progressed from a child to a tween and then a teen (I chronicle many of the ups and downs of parenting during these stages in my blog and in my recently published book Lovin’ the Alien). Suddenly, there was pressure to be popular, to be skinny, to have a boyfriend. I was aghast when I learned that in the emotionally charged cafeteria pecking order, cheerleaders ruled the school.
Between mean girls and predatory boys, texting and sexting, and mass media that celebrate Miley Cyrus twerking and Kim Kardashian’s generous booty, it’s hard to help a teenage girl focus on what really matters—like her brain, strength, passion, and conviction; her rights as a human and as a citizen of this country. This is one of the most important jobs I have as the mother of a daughter. Here’s how I’ve tried to guide her over the years:
Marry a feminist—I didn’t actually do this for my daughter, I did it for myself. But it’s certainly helped her see past any “traditional” stereotypes. My husband respects my success in business and he does most of the cooking.
Help her love her body—Eating disorders are too common among girls my daughter’s age. I try to demonstrate a healthy lifestyle (regular yoga and Zumba classes) rather than complain about my midlife weight gain. And I reframe any comments she makes about her own body. “My thighs are too big” is immediately countered with “You have incredible thigh muscles because you are an equestrian eventer.”
Encourage her passions—My daughter’s focus (“obsession” is a word we sometimes use) on horses, riding, and competing have helped her through many a teen trauma. In fact, I’m often taken aback by how a snarky comment by a sometime friend can intimidate her when she’s perfectly confident riding a 1,200-pound animal over a 3-foot fence. The upsides of her expensive sport are physical fitness, strength, and discipline. And the bonus is that it is a sport, and a fairly demanding one, that is absolutely dominated by women.
Give her a sense of her own political power—I’ve taken my daughter to the polls with me longer than either of us can remember. When Hillary Clinton stepped out of the presidential race, I took time to explain my grief (there’s no other word for it) to her. She’s already looking forward to voting (hopefully for Hillary) in 2016.
Surround her with strong women—This is the second year in a row that my daughter’s Honors English reading list has been devoid of women authors (and in most cases women characters). I supplement this with my favorite classics: Jane Eyre, Little Women, The Color Purple, The Handmaid’s Tale, anything by Jane Austen. Granted, her recreational reading tastes veer more toward Gossip Girl and The Carrie Diaries. But at least it gives us something to talk about.
Help her compare her life to that of girls elsewhere—I want my daughter to support women’s rights, but I don’t want her to feel like a victim. It’s important to recognize the progress our country has made and to see her life in the greater context of women of the world. To this end, I’ve taken her to human rights exhibits and to documentaries like Girl Rising. Armed with insight into less progressive societies, she may be able to affect even greater change.
Honor her foremothers—A couple of years ago, my daughter came home with a list of approved Social Studies projects. She had chosen the whaling industry. I took one look at the list and completely freaked out. Breaking my own rules, I forced her to switch to the Seneca Falls Convention. I didn’t regret it. Neither did she.
Through it all, I’ve steered clear of preaching (all right, maybe a little about the Social Studies project). But I’ve pointed out inequities when we’ve come across them. I knew I had won when she started pointing out these inequities to me.
What I learned trying to raise a feminist is that there are things beyond our control. I’m reminded, often, of something my daughter’s pediatrician told me when she started to eat solid, real-people food. “You can’t control what she eats, you can only control what you put in front of her.”
That’s where I’ve succeeded. Not in controlling what my daughter thinks (or, heaven knows, what she wears) but in what I have exposed her to. My daughter is 16, and she is a feminist.
Nobody needs three seders. God seems to think two are enough. Yet this Sunday, the third night of Passover, I will attend a third seder— a feminist seder—for the 37th year in a row, because I have come to feel that the holiday is incomplete without it.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Because on this night our service is drawn from the feminist Haggadah written by the late Esther Broner with Naomi Nimrod, which includes lines like, “We were told that we were brought out of Egypt from the house of bondage, but we were still our fathers’ daughters, obedient wives, and servers of our children, and were not yet ourselves.”
On this night, we become ourselves.
On this night, 20 or so women sit on pillows on the floor at a seder “table” spread with all the traditional foods and symbols, except that there’s an orange on the seder plate—a feminist rebuttal to the rabbi who once said, “A woman belongs on the bimah [platform in a synagogue where the Torah is read] like an orange belongs on the seder plate.”
On this night, after each of us introduces herself by her matrilineage (“I am Letty, daughter of Ceil, daughter of Jenny, alias Shayndel”), we bring into our midst the mothers and grandmothers who cooked and served but never reclined, and the millions more women in the texts and history of the Jewish people who are unseen, unsung, and unnamed.
On this night, we all recline. We wash each other’s hands. We ask the Four Questions of women. One year one question was, “Why did my brother get a fancy bar mitzvah in a hotel ballroom when I got a little kiddush [blessing over the wine] and sponge cake in the synagogue basement?” We recite the Plagues of Women—of which there are always more than 10— and we speak about the Four Daughters, female archetypes who yearn to know about their past.
On this night, not one but two goblets stand at the center of our table—Elijah’s cup, heralding our ultimate redemption and filled, as always, with wine, and Miriam’s cup, symbolizing sustenance and filled with water, the source of life.
Our Haggadah (order of service) gives proper credit to Moses’s sister, Miriam, the prophetess who led the Israelite women across the Red Sea with timbrels and with song.
According to a famous midrash (rabbinic commentary), when the Pharaoh condemned Jewish babies to death, Miriam’s father lost all hope for the future and stopped cohabiting with Miriam’s mother. Though only 7 years old, Miriam argued for life. She convinced her parents to stay together and to continue having children. The result was the birth of Moses.
Moreover, it was Miriam who placed her baby brother in a basket in the bulrushes, and when the Pharoah’s daughter found him, it was Miriam who put forward the baby’s own mother as his wet-nurse. The traditional telling of the Passover story barely mentions Miriam, but on this night we thank her for transgressing the boundaries of female submissiveness. We bring her to life, this rebel and visionary, for without Miriam there would have been no Moses.
Besides Miriam there are other boldly disobedient women to whom we owe the life of Moses and the destiny of the Jewish people. We honor Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who, by delivering Moses, violated the Pharaoh’s order to murder all first-born Jewish sons; and Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who gave up her baby so that he might survive; and Batya, the Pharaoh’s daughter, a righteous Gentile who disobeyed her father’s decree and adopted a Hebrew boy who’d been marked for murder.
At the feminist seder, we don’t praise good girls, we praise rebellious women, wise women, quiet heroines, and brash leaders. We laud scholars of the rabbinic period, entrepreneurial women of the Middle Ages, modern women suffragists, union organizers, martyrs of the Holocaust, anti-war protestors, civil rights workers, poets, stalwarts of the women’s movement.
Typically, a small group of us (the “Seder Sisters”) starts the planning process about two months ahead. We choose the seder’s theme (the topic about which all participants will speak in turn) and we hand out food assignments. (In 1979, according to my notes, Gloria Steinem brought the Manischewitz wine and Bella Abzug, the fiery Congresswoman in the wide-brimmed hats, brought the chicken.)
In 1990, our theme was “Omission, Absence, and Silence,” by which we meant men’s silencing of women and women’s self-censorship. Another year it was “Our Mentors,” a nod to those who had influenced our development as women or as Jews. On the seder’s seventh anniversary, we talked about the power of sevens in our faith tradition and in our lives.
One of my favorite themes was “Our Personal Chametz”—the stuff women have to get rid of before we can “pass over” into freedom. As each participant called out her chametz (self-deprecation, loneliness, passivity, jealousy, obsession with body image, shyness, fear of failure) she poured a little grain whisky from a beaker into a large pan and when the pan was full, we set the liquid aflame, symbolically burning the behaviors that hobble us and hold us back.
This year’s theme, “Honoring our [Seder] Mothers: Shaping and Reshaping the Future,” will, I’m sure, inspire encomiums to different women who mothered us into being, but foremost among them will be our beloved seder leader and co-founding seder mother, Esther Broner, who died in June.
Writer, playwright, social-justice activist, inventor of rituals, Esther was not just the co-author of its Hagaddah, she was our spiritual guru, the creator of our seder order, the high priestess who sat at the head of the table in her long white robe and embroidered kippa (skullcap), who blessed us with her sparkly wands and whispery incantations, who led us out of mitzrayim (Egypt, the narrow place) and made us feel strong and whole.
At the end of every seder, we always stand in a circle, wrap ourselves in a motley-looking rope of tied-together lavender fabric scraps which we call “the sacred shmatta,” and sing a song of peace. After Bella died, we added two rituals to bring her presence into our circle: We put a big-brimmed hat on an empty chair and we sing “Tayere Malke” (Dear Queen), the Yiddish drinking song she loved.
This year, I’m not sure what ritual we will devise to honor the irreplaceable Esther—maybe we’ll pull up a second empty chair and put Esther’s embroidered kippa on it. Then again, the entire enterprise is her memorial, for without Esther I doubt that our seder would have survived 37 years. From now on it’s up to us to keep alive her proud affirmation that Passover is also about us.
Winstead, the acclaimed comedian and co-creator of The Daily Show, was addressing a roomful of her peers. One was the first woman to win a Tony for direction in musical theater, one had just received an Academy Award nomination, another had created NBC’s newest hit comedy. It was opening night of the Second Annual Athena Film Festival, and these women were about to receive awards that “recognize extraordinary women for their leadership and creative accomplishments.”
The festival, which ran February 9 to 12, came a few weeks after a disappointing round of Oscar nominations that featured no woman Best Director nominees and spotty results for women elsewhere; a panel in which a top Hollywood director was quoted by none other than George Clooney as refusing to cast an actress with whom he did not want to have sex; and the newest University of California study on gender inequality in Hollywood, which reported that “male roles far outweigh those for women, females are far more likely to be scantily dressed,” and the gender of films’ creators had an impact on all of it. After the study’s release Stacy L. Smith, professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, issued a call to action via the Los Angeles Times: “Females represent half of the population and half of moviegoing audiences, but they don’t hit a third of the characters. Male consumers aren’t the only ones going to the movies, but our cultural storytellers today are male.”
It was to change that bleak picture that the Athena Film Festival was established last year by Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, in partnership with the nonprofit Women and Hollywood. Athena Center director Kathryn Kolbert and Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein were on hand at awards night, and WVFC favorites Katie Couric and Gloria Steinem were present to introduce the five inaugural awardees. Each so honored, in turn, was asked to name a woman whose inspiration and support had been key to her success.
Theresa Rebeck—whose “Excellence as a Playwright and Author of Films, Books and Television” includes Seminar, currently on Broadway; co-authorship of the Pulitzer-nominated Omnium Gatherum; and years writing and producing Law & Order and NYPD Blue as well as the current Smash—named another group of honorees: Diablo Cody, Dana Fox, Liz Meriwether, and Lorene Scafaria. The group of friends and colleagues, known as “the Fempire, was honored for “Their Creativity and Sisterhood.” They couldn’t be present to receive the awards in person because “we are working our butts off in this male-dominated industry,” they wrote in a message.
Rachael Horovitz, honored “for her Exceptional Talents as a Motion Picture Producer,” from HBO’s Grey Gardens to the Oscar-nominated Moneyball, named as her inspirer 92-year-old Priscilla Morgan, who, with her husband, composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, worked to bring the Spoleto Festival to the United States. As an agent in the 1950s, Morgan represented Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, and others on Broadway and NBC’s pioneering Philco Playhouse on TV. Horovitz met Morgan “when I was 5 years old and she came with my father to Spoleto,” Horovitz said. “She couldn’t be here, but she has inspired me ever since.”
Dee Rees, director of the new film Pariah and chosen with producer Nekisa Cooper for “Impact as Emerging Filmmakers,” named her Liberian grandmother for her survival, while Cooper gave a shout to Ava duVernay, filmmaker and founder of AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. “She left a successful career in public relations, ” Cooper said, “has made TWO award-winning films already, and she has helped so many of us. She is not only my friend—she is really, truly a model.”
Next, honored for “Her Vision and Courage as an Exemplary Director,” was Julie Taymor, introduced by Gloria Steinem as “the first person about whom I spontaneously used the word genius.” Steinem added that Taymor “is a joy to work with” and that “she has brought the world together” with travels to create productions in Japan, Africa and elsewhere. Taymor herself named multiple inspiring women, including Frida producer Sarah Green and Lynn Hendee, who stayed with Taymor and The Tempest and “was there in Hawaii when we ran out of money and couldn’t even afford to do the tempest!” Another was the late Laura Ziskin, “who pulled together the money for the movie I am working on now,” and was also the namesake for the evening’s last award: the “Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award.”
To introduce the latter was Couric, who had worked with the venerable Ziskin on one of her last big productions, the creation of Stand Up for Cancer. “Laura told me,” said Couric, that “‘in the 1980s AIDS activists brought all of their game to the fight. That’s what we have to do now.’ In September 2008,” Couric added. “we brought all three networks together and raised millions. That was Laura. She lived and fought until the day she died.”
Accepting the award, Ziskin’s daughter reflected that when she started in 1978, Ziskin “was often the only woman in the room . . . she had to look a little deeper. That’s how she found Fight Club: she didn’t accept the word no.”
For the next four days, the festival would continue in that same spirit, with panels, screenings, and brainstorming sessions in which veterans offered tips to emerging or aspiring filmmakers. BriAnna Olson, currently directing short commercial films like this GemGirls music video featured on NPR, was thrilled with Friday’s panel “From Script to Screen,” featuring Pariah’s Nekisa Cooper, Precious producer Lisa Cortes, and Mary Jane Skalski (The Station Agent), among others.
“It was fabulous,” Olson told me. “I learned a lot, and it was great feeling to be part of something larger—that there’s not this huge gap between me and the film world.”
Still to come: Film reviews and more festival details, including how Gloria Steinem stopped hating the HBO film about her.
Anita Hill stood onstage and waited for the standing ovation to end. It took awhile: Hunter College’s auditorium was crammed with women, ages 15 to 75.
Some were the same age that Hill was in 1991, when she came forward to testify in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Others had been at her side, or among the millions watching the young law professor talk about unwanted sexual advances by her former supervisor. And still others had been too young to hear her then, but came to honor and learn from a pioneer for justice.Asked by Harvard professor Patricia Williams, “When did you realize this was a moment beyond just the moment?” Hill talked about her last appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee: “At the end of my testimony, [civil rights attorney] John Frank came up to me in tears, saying, “I know this is hard, but you have no idea how important this is to our country.”
The conversation between Hill and Williams came during the conference “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later,” presented at Hunter College on October 15. The point made by John Frank was demonstrated by the day’s four panels, which discussed in turn the events of 1991, its s effects on the law, and the challenges to come. Along the way, many saluted two other women, both of them African Americans, who preceded Hill in exposing workplace sexual harassment: Paulette Barnes, who brought the first civil suit against her supervisor at the EPA in 1974, and Mechelle Vinson, whose case against Mentor Savings finally removed such employer behavior from the realm of “personal matters” and into the jurisdiction of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
However, commented University of Michigan professor Catherine MacKinnon (right), such harassment was still sotto voce until those 1991 hearings.
Only then did it become real to the American public, MacKinnon said as the conference began. “My book in 1979 [Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Yale University Press] didn’t do that. The 1981 EEOC guidelines didn’t do it,” MacKinnon explained. “But Anita Hill did it. After the hearings, sexual harassment complaints across the nation tripled. And even years after, women believed her with ferocity, and continued to do so after time and heat passed.”
They still do, said Ms. magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the event’s co-chair. Women flooded email boxes across the country last year when Justice Thomas’ wife Ginni demanded an apology from Hill after all these years. “We realized it wasn’t really over,” Cottin Pogrebin said.
In 1991, Tulane University’s Melissa Harris-Perry (left) was just beginning her sophomore year at Wake Forest University. Harris had just organized a residential community for black women, called Nia House, she said, so when the hearings began, “we were all watching together.” At the time, Harris-Perry added, “I also had to contend with the fact that my dear mentor, Maya Angelou, had just written a piece hoping that Clarence Thomas, who had been poor, might be good for our racial politics.”
What happened instead was the subject of much of the day, as panelists examined the complex intersection of race and gender that played out in Thomas’s nomination and succession to the bench.
Harris-Perry was referring to a piece that had been published in the Washington Post in August 1991, before a coalition of law professors of color persuaded Hill to testify. After she did,Thomas famously told the Senate Judiciary Committee that allowing her testimony amounted to “a high-tech lynching.”
The day Thomas made that statement, said Kimberle Crenshaw of Columbia University Law School, she left the Capitol and was “surrounded by African-American women praying. They were praying for an end to this threat to Thomas being named a Justice—the threat coming from Anita Hill! And our taxi driver, an African immigrant, nearly drove off the road gesturing about Hill’s betrayal of ‘our community.’”
The resulting split of constituencies was a minefield for opponents of the Thomas nomination, said Judith Resnik of Yale Law School. “Confidence was all about counting the votes,” Resnik said. “And we were not given enough time to educate Senators abou the issue.”
Since ascending to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas’s impact has been keenly felt—most recently in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, said Hunter linguistics professor Virginia Vallian. “Just as in 1991 the Senate did not understand the realities for women in the workplace,” she said, “in 2011 the Court didn’t get the effects of rampant discrimination, how it actually manifests.”
The recent case of Nassifatou Diallo, whose charges against IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn stunned three countries, showed both the achievement and limitations of that wake-up call, panelists agreed.
Diallo benefited in one way from the sea change in attitudes since 1991: she knew what had happened to her was illegal. “It is because of Anita Hill’s example that a hotel worker knew that she had rights… and both have won in the court of public opinion,” said Gloria Steinem. “Clarence Thomas is on the Court, but Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be president of France.”
Diallo “spoke for so many women in workplaces around the country,” said Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which works on behalf of the two million women who work as nannies ad caregivers. “The case being dropped says we have so much more work to do.”
Ideas about what to do next varied. Younger women talked of current harassment and the need for intergenerational strategies, others of educating men. Gloria Steinem proposed a new legal category, parallel to hate crimes. These “supremacy crimes,” Steinem said, would include sexual harassment, domestic violence, and “so-called senseless killings by men who go into a school or a restaurant or other public place,” like the recent massacre in Norway—whose offenders, “exclusively male and usually white, act out against challenges to their supremacy.”
Dr. Hill’s own suggestions involve a redefinition of ‘home,’ as she outlines in her new book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. Why ‘home,’ Williams asked. Hill cited Ken Burns, who has often said that he sees ‘home’ as a metaphor for equality. Hill extended the metaphor, describing ‘home’ as “a lens through which we can safely view the world.” That could mean safety from poverty, discrimination, or from trauma, as well as representing a physical home, she said. “Home is an ideal state of being, as much as a reality, which must be reimagined for each generation.”
In the book, Hill proposes a “Home Summit” for women and girls to shape the next stage of the battle. She leaned forward, toward the audience. “Can anyone take this to the White House Council on Women and Girls?”
These are just a few of the highlights of a powerful day. To hear more, go to the conference’s Web site . And let us know (in the comments below) if you’ve had an Anita Hill moment yourself, and what you think is most important to remember over the next 20 years.
This week’s blog assortment turned out purely aspirational, from an interview with Iran’s greatest living poet, to honors for Ada Lovelace Day, the country’s first computer programmer, to Anjelica Huston reflecting on what she knows now that she didn’t at 20.
- We’ve often featured Tish Jett’s A Femme d’un Certain Age, but we agree with WVFC’s Stacey Bewkes that this week Jett has outdone herself with Famous Faces of a Certain Age. Click over for iconic and new photos of Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem, Brigitte Bardot, Dominique Sanda, and many others, well-narrated: “As Jacqueline pointed out yesterday, broaden the issue, ‘Let’s discuss what makes these women beautiful.’ Someone else said, ‘They are themselves with a vengeance.’ How great is that?”
- In her Fall Theater Review at Broadway & Me, Jan Simpson calls our attention to the latest work by one of our most beloved actors: “Linda Lavin passed on both the chance to play the showbiz trouper Hattie Walker who sings “Broadway Baby” in Follies and the role of the aunt in Other Desert Cities so that she could portray the mother in The Lyons, Nicky Silver’s new play about a family struggling to come to terms with the death of the husband and father who bound them together. Mark Brokaw is directing the play, which is being done at the Vineyard Theatre. I don’t know anything more about it than that. But if it’s good enough for the prodigiously talented Lavin to give up a shot at two Broadway shows, that’s more than good enough for me.”
- Did you know that this Friday is Ada Lovelace Day, dedicated to women in science, technology, engineering, and math? We just found out, and the birthday of the country’s first computer programmer is worth both a cheer and a push to embrace the next generation. At Big Think, Megan Ericksen asks the not-yet-obsolete question, “Where Are All the Women Scientists?” With video of First Lady Michelle Obama at the National Science Foundation, Ericksen says they’re not born without early encouragement: “Of course there’s nothing wrong with a long, financially-dependent life in the liberal arts, but there is something amiss when you’ve decided — or been told — that you’re just no good at math and science before you’ve hit fifteen. As teachers and parents will attest, whatever sociological forces are dividing women and men into paths as nurses or radiologists, daycare providers or professors, they are in full swing by high school.”
- We’re guessing that Jacki Lyden —WVFC contributor, NPR journalist, and author of Daughter of the Queen of Sheba — will be glad to to see Guernica Magazine‘s interview with Iran’s most prominent poet, two-time Nobel nominee, Simin Behbahāni, who speaks about “the greatest epic in history, the nightmare of censorship, and why her country will eventually achieve democracy.” The poet, writes interviewer Shiva Rahnbaran, “is optimistic about where Persian thought and literature are headed despite Iranian society’s many post-revolution disillusionments.”
- Also optimistic, it seems, is Anjelica Huston, who just gave a series of interviews at Style Goes Strong, the new style section of Life Goes Strong. In the second, she answers our perpetual question, What Do You Now Know That You Didn’t Know When You were 20? A lot, apparently: “I don’t think you want life to just be the same old, same old. You don’t want it to be old hat. I still want to feel my nerves sizzling. For instance, I just started on a new series called ‘Smash’ about Broadway and it’s filmed in NYC. I moved from California to New York and I’ll be in a brand new city for six or seven months of the year now… I’ve been living in California for the past 30 years. I took my dogs and moved into an apartment in New York. I can’t believe that I moved cross country! Life is changing very fast for me now, but at the same time it’s not a bad thing. All my friends are saying it’s good. Yes, it’s scary, but what I know now that I didn’t know when I was younger is that change is not a bad thing. It’s new and it’s good. You embrace your fears and you just do it.” Below, two clips — one of Huston’s dazzling 20-something debut in Prizzi’s Honor, and one talking about her new film, 50/50:
On Monday night, at 9 p.m. Eastern time, HBO will premiere its documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, a chronicle of the life of one of WVFC’s most beloved power women, Gloria Steinem. The news is buzzing with commentary about Steinem for the occasion, including the TIME interview below. We love her common-sense response when asked about her personal beauty, and about her own age (77), including her expectation of at least 23 more years of raising hell.
The Wednesday Five: Erykah Badu Bares Her Soul, Skin-Deep Safety and Life After Alabama’s Tornadoes (VIDEO)
This week from the blogosphere: a glimpse of Alabama after tornadoes, a new database to make sure our cosmetics are safe, and what a Forbes blogger realized when she met Gloria Steinem.
- Among this week’s crush of news was the story of the tornadoes across the South, the most destructive in recorded history. New Orleans blogger Renee Claire has first-hand reporting from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, including some dramatic footage and useful suggestions about where we can give to help out.
- Wondering how to sort through warnings about chemicals in our skin care products and cosmetics? Try the Environmental Working Group’s national Skin Deep database, via our sister site Our Bodies, Our Blog. Click on the first link, writes the blog’s Rachel Walden, “You can browse by cosmetic category or search for the name of your favorite product to find out about possible hazards in terms of cancer risk, reproductive toxicities, and allergies. Information is also provided on companies’ animal testing policies. The directions and ingredients listed on each product label is listed, and links are provided to other similar product types and products from the same manufacturer.” OBOS also gives links to the database’s testing protocols.
- At WVFC, we know Janet Golden as an incisive writer and half of our celebrated Team Librarian pair of humorists. So we were both unsurprised and thrilled to find Janet’s wise commentary at History News Network, giving historical perspective on recent efforts in Maine to scale back child labor laws. With droll irony, she frames the trend on Maine as a modest proposal: “Maine could really be a model if it would just eliminate all restrictions on work. As one woman told investigators in 1919: ‘Once, before the child-labor law got so bad, little bits of kids, five to six years old, would get out and make more than the older ones.’ Imagine how great it would be if our five and six year olds could be doing their part and perhaps inspire their older siblings to buckle down. And aren’t we always complaining about kids needing to exercise and lose a few pounds? What’s better than getting up in the morning and walking to work and earning so little that you just don’t have money for junk food, or sometimes, any food?”
- Forbes.com isn’t where you usually look for a three-part series on “Why I Returned to the Women’s Movement.” At She Negotiates, Victoria Pynchon begins by narrating the recent premiere of D.A. Pennebaker’s film Jane, about Jane Fonda, at a fundraiser for the Women’s Media Center to describe her initial dismissal of feminism in the early Ms. Magazine days: “I didn’t want to be a woman lawyer. I wanted to be a lawyer.” By part III, of course, the outside world has taught her the usefulness of such distinctions, and the community it engenders.
- “What? Erykah Badu is 40?” That joyful yelp followed our discovery of this pointer on Racialicious to the revolutionary (if diminutive) singer’s spectacular and sexy VIBE Magazine cover. Badu, who turned 40 this year, compares the cover photo —in which she is naked except for a spectacular tattoo — to “traditional performance art like Yoko Ono, or Nina Simone. Research some of those women. They all seem to live by the same theme: Well-behaved women rarely make history. Even looking at people like Harriet Tubman and those types of women. When you have strong convictions about something you know what you already gonna do.” She also talks about the video below, in which her nudity is blurred but its message is not:
The Wednesday Five: Dressing Up for Staying In, Lessons for Midlife Moms Parenting Tweens, and Happy Birthday, Gloria Steinem! (VIDEO)
- What did you learn from Gloria Steinem, and when? The answers are still coming: see Shelby Knox’s On Her 77th Birthday, 7 Things I’ve Learned From Gloria Steinem. It’s worth reading in full, starting with the first rule, ‘Patriarchy is a relatively new mistake,’ and continuing to maxims like “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but you think it’s a pig… it’s a pig.” Self explanatory enough – trust yourself, always. For many of us marginalized people, we’ve been taught to do just the opposite. This is what oppressive forces want and something we must resist with all of our being.” Click the link to learn what Steinem and Knox mean by “We all need a chosen family” and perhaps most mysterious, “Ask the turtle.”
- We knew that we weren’t the only site saddened by the loss of Gerry Ferraro, or even the only one to respond with a video. Tennessee Guerilla Women has tons more–including her VP debate with George H.W. Bush–and we were also taken by the heartfelt response of New Deal 2.0’s Lynn Parramore. “I was just fourteen when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate, and I recall thinking: ‘Wow! Who is this feisty woman on TV talking about the White House?!?’,” Parramore writes. “A woman running for vice president was something new and exciting. Everybody knew she had to be tough as nails and whip smart to navigate the minefields of such an unprecedented candidacy. What was more amazing than her poise was her plausibility. To hear her speak was to take her seriously. In fact, there were times when she seemed more plausible as a leader than the other candidate on her ticket. This was a woman who had been a mother, a lawyer, a successful Congresswoman. She was a tough-talking New Yorker, but the fact that she had stayed home until her kids were school age made it harder for conservatives to paint her as something unnatural and unwomanly.”
- When Alexandra MacAaron isn’t writing top-drawer culture pieces for WVFC, she’s either running her direct-marketing agency or running to keep up with her tween daughter, she tells us. And sometimes, she writes in her blog Lovin’ the Alien, both of the latter roles clash hard, as when her daughter takes her somewhere she’s obviously not the target audience. Like the mall, where she goes to buy her daughter jeans: “We escape from Abercrombie relatively unscathed — just the jeans, not a single graphic tee or hoodie. My daughter is elated. I’m a bit bewildered, but … I am not the target audience.” There is, however, some common ground, she writes: “Next, we track down the store Pink, a colorful, brightly lit shop of cotton undies, sleepwear and Betty Boop-inspired lingerie. …My daughter needs a strapless bra to wear under a sundress for an upcoming bat mitzvah. Styles change, but there are some things you can rely on. Whether you’re 13 or 48, you buy a strapless bra because you have to — not because it’s comfortable.” Though no midlife woman we know shops at Pink.
- Speaking of shopping for intimates, Deja Pseu of Une Femme guest blogs at A Woman of a Certain Age on an issue recently highlighted in our Sex Talks: lingerie. In “Dressing Up and Staying In,” Pseu helps zero in on the category’s sweet spot: “While there may be times that call for the full Frederick’s of Hollywood treatment, in those situations comfort is irrelevant as those pieces generally aren’t worn for an extended period of time. 😉 But in between naughty-wear and oversized cartoon character sleep shirts, there’s a middle ground I think of as allure, and it’s achievable on a regular basis. You can find sleepwear that’s comfortable, yet pretty enough to garner some favorable attention from that person on the other side of the bed.”
- In honor of the women suing Wal-Mart for pay discrimination, Melissa at Women and Hollywood suggests that we rent the newly released DVD of Made in Dagenham, the British film about a 1968 strike against Ford Motor Company by women in a UK plant. Regardless of your thoughts on massive class-action suits, we think it’s a good idea. Here’s a video clip to get you to your online rental queue or local video store.
Historically, people yawn through mid-term elections. But not this year. 2010 is the Year of the Outrageous—not the Year of the Woman, as some would have it. Yes, there are many women running, and they are attracting a great deal of attention. But this attention isn’t necessarily positive, and it doesn’t make traditional feminists happy.
I say “traditional” to distinguish them from conservative women candidates who have appropriated the feminist label, even as they campaign against programs that benefit women. Sharron Angle, for instance, campaigning for a Senate seat in Nevada, believes it is “right” for women to stay home with their children rather than venture out into the workplace. Campaigning in the primary, Angle said she’d like to see Social Security, the lifeline of almost half of all older women living alone, “transitioned out” to the private sector. Her advice to pregnant victims of rape or incest? Turn lemons into lemonade, because their pregnancies are part of “God’s plan.”
In 2008, I was very excited, as other feminists were, when a woman appeared to have an excellent shot at the presidency. In her campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear her positions on all the important issues, drawing on years of experience close to the center of power and on her skills as an attorney. She also believed it important to demonstrate through her demeanor that she had all the prized, traditionally “masculine” attributes, such as rationality, and none of the “feminine” baggage betrayed by the expression of emotion. Conventional wisdom held that a woman who wanted to do a “man’s job” had to suppress any sign that she wasn’t actually a man.
John McCain, looking to erode Clinton’s support among women, countered her essentially neutered persona by nominating Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin displayed her femininity by capitalizing on her physical charms and keeping her children on stage with her as often as possible. It was very refreshing and affirming of womanhood for a candidate aspiring to high office to promote herself as a woman and not relegate her children to deep background or camouflage her breasts under a business suit.
But it was more complicated than that. McCain’s assumption that women vote with their vaginas was not only demeaning, it was patently untrue. The electorate in 2008 was 53 percent female, and 56 percent of those women voted for Obama. On the other hand, many men candidly admitted they were attracted by Palin’s sexuality. Her lack of preparation and experience was painfully apparent during interviews, inspiring not only many jokes but Tina Fey’s devastating impersonation. Palin revived the gendered stereotype of the sexy bimbo, even as Clinton validated the feminist ideal of the competent woman equal to any man. Yet Palin also demonstrated real political savvy, delivering prepared speeches with admirable aplomb, while Clinton’s apparently involuntary display of emotion in New Hampshire revived her flagging campaign. The 2008 election was a mixed bag for the feminist agenda.
“Name It, Change It” is a project intended to help women candidates succeed in this campaign season, with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of women in elective office. The Women’s Media Center has teamed up with the Women’s Campaign Forum and Political Parity to monitor the media coverage of women’s campaigns and identify and condemn instances of sexist commentary. A recent study has shown that such sexism not only can cost women an election, but discourages them from running at all. At the campaign’s launch last month, Women’s Media Center founder Gloria Steinem made it easy to identify sexism by applying the concept of reversibility: test the suspect phrase by applying it to the other gender. “Don’t say she’s just out of graduate school but he’s a rising star,” Steinem wrote. “Don’t say she has no professional training but he worked his way up.”
Even more familiar is the falling back on descriptions of a woman candidate’s appearance—her clothing, her hair, her (un)attractiveness—not her statements on policy. One egregious example: a widely circulated video that explicitly compares the physical attractiveness of conservative women to that of their liberal counterparts, against an audio track of the song “Pretty Woman” followed by “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
If the 2008 election was complicated in terms of gender politics, the 2010 midterms are exponentially more so. Tea Party women, exemplified by Sharron Angle (left) and Christine O’Donnell (below), are dominating the chatter of the punditocracy. Unquestionably, the largely mocking, 24/7 saturation coverage of these women has a sexist tinge, if only because the focus has been on, at least in O’Donnell’s case, strange things she said more than a decade ago. Why is so much written about her dabbling in witchcraft as a teenager? Why isn’t she being pressed to reveal and explain her current positions instead? Why is Bill Maher picking on her? Why is he not similarly tearing into, for example, Alvin Greene, the unemployed, indicted, come-from-nowhere senatorial wannabe from South Carolina? A brief moment in the limelight and poof! Greene’s off the radar.
Complicating O’Donnell’s situation are some of the opinions she’s expressed over the years—statements that are so far afield, they almost beg to be ridiculed. She has claimed to be “privy” to classified information that China has a “strategic plan to take over America”; she has stated that masturbation is equivalent to adultery and should therefore be forbidden; and she has maintained that cloning researchers have produced “mice with fully functioning human brains.” O’Donnell has complained of “character assassination” by the media. I think she’s right; furthermore, she’s clearly vulnerable and naïve. (The canny Sarah Palin came up with good advice: “explain what the real witchcraft and voodoo politics and economics is and that’s what’s going on in D.C.”)
But let’s not overlook the fact that O’Donnell is running for high political office. It’s not just a case of “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”—the question is whether O’Donnell and some of the others running this year belong anywhere near the “kitchen” to begin with. But even if that’s so, shouldn’t they be judged on their thoughts about—and possible solutions for—the problems facing their constituents today, rather than statements made years ago?
Poorly qualified candidates tarnish the images of other women who have studied and worked hard to prepare themselves for public service. We should consider the possibility that politicians who favor repealing or gutting programs that protect women may be furthering their agenda by promoting women candidates who undermine the position, stature, and respect that women have earned for themselves over the past decades.
When The Atlantic titled Hannah Rosin’s cover story “The End of Men,” they knew they’d get a flurry of reactions in the media and they have. Below, watch Katie Couric talk to Gloria Steinem and the Women’s Media Center’s Jehmu Greene about why the title’s a red herring — and why women’s greater workforce participation hasn’t yet translated into equality, let alone dominance.