The Resonance of Two Tiny Words

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When I was a young teen, I was walking alone on a street in my safe, suburban town when a middle-aged man in a white sedan pulled up alongside me. He stared at me out of his rolled-down window and said, “Would you have sex with me for $100?” I fled. A few years later during my college years, at my summer job in an insurance agency, the boss called me into his office on my last day of work and made me kiss him on the lips.

These unpleasant memories have come back to me as the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal has lit up the news and social media. Weinstein joins a long line of men who have used their power to sexually prey upon women. Thus when actress Alyssa Milano wondered what would happen if all women who had been sexually harassed posted “Me, too” to their Twitter accounts, social media exploded with those two seemingly innocuous words.

It is hard to have grown up in our culture without having experienced unwanted sexual attention from men: catcalls and wolf whistles; boys rating girls’ attractiveness as they walked down the halls of school; groping and leering. In the Sixties and Seventies to which Weinstein alluded in a lame attempt to justify his behavior, treating women as objects was commonplace. A cursory viewing of the TV series Mad Men has such verisimilitude that it’s enough to give women my age unwelcome flashbacks. The workplace was particularly daunting for women. For example, flight attendants were subject to weight requirements, and women could be fired from their jobs for becoming pregnant. Employers openly told their female employees that men were paid more because they had to support families.

While women have made many strides in society, their characterization as sexual objects persists. Although Weinstein’s detractors are many, some noted celebrities have come to his defense. Woody Allen, for instance, complained of a “witch hunt” atmosphere in which a guy couldn’t even wink at a woman (or child, in his case) without getting into trouble. That’s right, Woody. We don’t want your winks – or pinches or whistles or any other demeaning or sexist gestures. You see, we are human beings, not your fantasy objects.

Mayim Bialik also completely missed the point by claiming that unattractive actresses (presumably herself) are not harassed in Hollywood. Bialik clearly thinks that Weinstein’s (and O’Reilly’s and Roger Ailes’s and Bill Cosby’s …) predatory behavior was about sex. But for sexual predators, it’s all about power. Objectifying women and threatening their careers if they don’t “put out” are ways of keeping women in their place. And judging from the “Me too”s all over Facebook and Twitter, women in all walks of life have been subject to this same power game.

There are laws on the books to protect victims (both male and female) of sexual harassment. The problem is that a code of silence often prevails, and those in power buy the silence of their victims. It is easy from the outside to say that these actresses should have gone public immediately to stop the predatory behavior of Michael Weinstein. But in an industry as difficult to succeed in as is the entertainment world, it’s understandable why women would choose not to rock the boat. And it is maddening that in the 21st Century women should need to call men out on this dehumanizing behavior.

I am currently reading a book titled Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love by Kathleen Buckstaff. In the book, Buckstaff reveals her own emotional struggles after being sexually abused as a teenager at an East Coast boarding school. Like many victims, she kept her abusers’ secrets, but the emotional fallout led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adulthood. Clearly the stakes are high in our culture for victims of sexual predators.

We need a sea change in our attitudes about gender roles, power, and sex. But first we need to break the code of silence and tacit acceptance around sexual abuse and harassment. And maybe it starts with saying, “Me, too.”

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Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian World

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Eggers-Simon-Atwood_CSLA2017_JustinBarbin-700x477At last week’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event in Chicago, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s writing was described as “speculative fiction,” as opposed to science fiction. That distinction is an important one. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic worlds are terrifying precisely because they could actually come into being.

I have been reading Margaret Atwood’s fiction since the late Eighties, when I was introduced to her novel Cat’s Eye in a book club. Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale, however, launched her into both the public eye and the world of dystopian fiction. A book as darkly prescient as the classic 1984 and Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s Tale imagines America as a repressive Biblical theocracy in which women are reduced to their role as bearer of children, more incubators than mothers.

With the increasing erosion of women’s reproductive rights and Trump’s recent directives concerning contraceptive coverage in health insurance, it’s frightening to see how the religious right has influenced government policy to the detriment of women’s freedoms. Yet the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale resemble women in repressive Islamic regimes as much as anything, which makes a pointed statement about the dangers of mingling church and state.

Atwood’s more recent fiction includes the MaddAddam trilogy, a glimpse into a pre- and post-apocalyptic world in which global warming has made the Earth a merciless oven, a madman has wiped out most of the world’s population with a virus, and our obsession with technology has created real world, violent “painballers,” genetically modified pigs with cunning human brains, and drones that spy on citizens.

In The Heart Goes Last, civilization has almost completely broken down, and people take refuge in a corporate nightmare where they reside in a prison for half of their time and a controlled, monitored “town” for the other half. I won’t reveal the meaning of the title, but it’s not pretty. Once again, Atwood zeroes in on our autocratic tendencies, the dangers of uncontrolled corporate greed, and our obsession with mass incarceration of our citizens.

Yes, the world painted by Margaret Atwood is surely a scary one. But there is a dark humor in her writing that make her novels so enjoyable to read even as they are scaring the bejesus out of us. Atwood, who appeared at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event as an award recipient, is a sly, funny, and acerbic woman. As much as I dread the world her dark intellect conjures, I can’t wait to read her next masterful novel.

Disturbing Reality Behind School Dress Codes

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“That dress is too short,” my husband remarked when he saw my 16-year-old daughter modeling her selection for Homecoming. After marathon dress shopping to find something my daughter liked, I was not in the mood to put up with his remark. But I took his point.

There is a growing awareness in schools that dress codes unfairly stigmatize girls and go easy on boys. Across the country, girls and their parents have fought for the right to allow girls to wear tight leggings, spaghetti straps, and other clothes that have in the past been considered a distraction.

While I agree that it’s unfair to single out girls at school for their attire, the fact that there are so many styles for girls that could be labeled as too sexy or distracting points to an upsetting reality: In our society, females continue to be objectified and judged for their physical appearance in a way that males rarely are.

One might argue that the ubiquitous legging, which girls wear in a manner that reveals every curve of thigh and buttocks, is simply what’s in style for young women. Ditto for short skirts and other revealing clothing. But that fact begs the question: why? Why are styles for women so relentlessly geared toward sexualizing their bodies?

Men dress for comfort or success. Aside from the trend of wearing baggy pants that reveal a guy’s boxers, there are few styles for men that could be construed as too sexy or distracting. The boys at my daughter’s school wear baggy shorts and t-shirts or preppy polos and khaki shorts or “joggers.” As long as there is not an overtly violent message or a logo for a beer label on their person, boys are pretty safe from scrutiny at school.

Not so for girls, who want to look stylish and cute. They are not necessarily trying to come on to boys, but they also don’t want to dress like their mothers or grandmothers. So my daughter turns up at Homecoming in a tiny, short dress that reveals her incredibly long, muscular legs. Even I’m intimidated looking at her sometimes.

This is the dilemma girls and women face in our culture. Until we change our social norms and start to prize females more for who they are inside, we will continue to objectify their outer selves. And schools will continue to fight battles over what is appropriate dress in schools.

Swift Justice

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I love Taylor Swift. Not just because she’s pretty and sings catchy pop tunes. But because in her recent lawsuit against a radio DJ, she stood up for everywoman. Yesterday, a judge awarded Swift the symbolic one dollar she sought from David Mueller, a Denver radio jock, for sexually assaulting her during a backstage meet-and-greet.

After Mueller grabbed her buttocks at the event, Swift and her mother complained to the radio station management. She did not file criminal charges against Mueller or tweet about the incident to get public sympathy or support. But Mueller was fired and decided to sue Swift, her mother, and others for setting out to cost him his job. That’s when Swift decided to countersue.

The judge found that the alleged assault had indeed taken place and dismissed Mueller’s original suit. But not before Mueller’s lawyer tried the time-honored technique of blaming and shaming the victim. First he questioned why she did not do anything at the time of the assault and why no one else noticed it happening. Her answer to the latter question is priceless: “‘The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.'” (“The essential part of Swift’s court case,” Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2017)

Then the lawyer tried to make Swift feel guilty about Mueller’s having lost his radio DJ job. Again, Swift stood up for women everywhere when she replied,

“I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions – not mine.” (Tribune, Aug. 15, 2017)

Taylor Swift has the money, fame, and power to stand up to those who would assault her and to a justice system that allows victims to be publicly shamed for someone else’s abuse of them. In doing so, and in claiming her symbolic award of damages, Swift sent a message to women, courts, and would be sexual predators everywhere that sexual assault will not be tolerated and will never be the victim’s fault.

Thanks, Taylor. I hope you can now “shake it off” and continue doing what you do best: entertaining your fans.

 

 

Thinking About Gender

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The other day my daughter was hanging out with two of her best friends in our backyard. It was her birthday, and they had surprised her with an early morning birthday breakfast. As I puttered in the kitchen, I glanced out the window and saw the three girls squeezed into my daughter’s parachute-like hammock, limb upon limb. I thought to myself, “Teenaged boys would never do that.”

As a young feminist and subscriber to the tabula rasa school of thought on human development, I used to resist the idea that gender roles had any basis in biology. Girls and boys are different, I insisted, because they learn to be. To be sure, it’s hard to separate nature from nurture in the way children develop because even as infants, children are handled differently based upon their sex.

But as the parent of both boys and girls, I’ve had to admit that there seem to be some inherent differences between the sexes. My boys have always been more active and challenged authority more than my girls. The nature of their friendships with others of the same sex is different too. My girls have always felt social slights more deeply than have my boys. And seeing a group of girls braiding each other’s hair does resemble the grooming behavior of our primate relatives, the chimpanzees.

I realize there is wide variation in the way individual children develop. Not all girls like dolls, and not all boys like sports. And the science of human development is discovering the many nuances that make gender much less of a binary phenomenon than has previously been assumed. Such discoveries are making people uncomfortable and opening up debates about gender identification on birth certificates and surgery on intersex children. I think what’s most important in these debates is the idea that we are each unique individuals, and our identities should be respected and viewed as the complexities that they actually are.

Still, it’s been interesting for me to see the way my sons and daughters have developed over the years and to admit to myself that I don’t know the half of it when it comes to gender. I remember when my oldest child tried to be a tomboy. Her best friend was rough and tumble, so my daughter eschewed more girlish clothing and activities. Ultimately, though, her identification as a “girly girl” won out. I also remember my daughter and her friends dressing my younger son up in girls’ clothes and putting barrettes in his hair. That adorable little boy has grown up to be a burly football player.

Gender identification is important. It’s a big part of who we are as human beings. I believe that if we are open and loving with our children, we will raise them to be exactly who they are meant to be: themselves.

 

Behind the Veil

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Women and their head coverings have been much in the news lately. There have been alternating praise and criticism for Melania and Ivanka Trump, for instance, for their sartorial choices on their recent Mideast trip with the president.

Some found hypocrisy in the fact that the women refused to wear a hijab when in Saudi Arabia but were practically covered head to toe in black to meet the pope. Others cheered their spunk and refusal to bow to a hated Islamist ideology. Similar decisions to cover or not cover their heads have been the subject of criticism for other First Ladies, such as Michelle Obama.

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To all of this I have to ask, what’s the big deal? I am far more disturbed by the fact that President Trump said nothing about the dreadful state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia than whether the First Lady was making a pointed political statement by allowing her hair to be seen. On the other hand, such criticism might be seen as hypocritical coming from a man who does not seem to hold women in particularly high regard. Still, it’s all relative, and I hope that at least privately the president put pressure on Saudi Arabia to advance the rights of women as a condition for continuing to arm them to the teeth.

What I find most disturbing about the recent brouhaha over headwear for women is that society persists in judging every single thing about a woman’s choices, right down to her clothing and hair. It’s the 21st Century, and yet we’re still focused on women as ornaments, somehow not fully human. No one mused philosophically about what the color of Donald Trump’s tie or the cut of his suit might indicate about his beliefs or intentions.

Muslim women who choose to wear the veil do so for myriad reasons, most of them religious. Why that choice should be denigrated and looked upon as political is beyond me. The primary purpose in covering one’s head and chest seems to be modesty. What devout Christian would have a problem with women being modest? Yet because of terrorism and the need to demonize those who oppose us, Americans have taken a hostile stance against Muslim women in hijab.

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Years ago, there was a great TV series called Jack and Bobby. It was about two young brothers, one of whom would one day become the president of the United States. The boys’ mother, played by Christine Lahti, is a college professor, and she has a hostile exchange with a female student who wears the hijab. In a memorable scene, Lahti’s character attacks the woman for allowing herself to be controlled by a male-dominated culture. The young woman throws back her belief that American women are the ones being controlled by men’s need to see them as perfect physical specimens whose looks are constantly on display.

That exchange gave me pause back in the Nineties, and it sticks with me to this day. Women of all cultures should be free to dress and speak and act in whatever way they choose. And it should be their character, intelligence, and personal inner qualities that are focused on, not their clothing, their hair, their modesty, or the lack thereof.

The real veil women are often required to hide behind is the metaphorical one imposed by a society that still does not see them as equal to men. Until we address that reality, what a woman does or does not wear on her head makes very little difference at all.

Young Women Need Feminism

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Kathrine Switzer made history in 1967 when she participated as a registered runner in the Boston Marathon. Despite rules barring women from competing, Switzer signed up and managed to run the entire marathon, despite an official physically trying to drag her out of the race. Fifty years later, Switzer jubilantly ran in this year’s Boston Marathon, leading a group of 100 women runners.

After the race, Switzer was quoted as saying,  “If young women today take for granted the fact that they can compete like men in the sport of running, that’s fantastic. That’s what we wanted when we began working for acceptance.” (amightygirl.com) I’m not so sure I agree with her.

I think it’s a problem that young women today don’t realize how many rights women gained only through the activism and struggle of their forebears. It has been less than 100 years since women won the right to vote in America. Even in more recent history, women were discriminated against in the workplace and barred from many rights that today’s woman takes for granted.

In the 1960s, for instance, women could be refused a credit card, and married women had to have their husbands co-sign to obtain one. Married women were also listed on passports as simply the wife of a man. Most of the Ivy League schools barred women from admittance until the late Sixties and beyond. And only married women with menstrual difficulties were allowed to purchase contraception in the early Sixties.

Even as women began entering the workplace in greater numbers, they faced widespread harassment and discrimination. In the 1960s, women earned approximately 60% of what men earned, largely due to the occupations that were open to women, but also because men were looked at as the breadwinners and therefore in need of greater compensation. This was quite overt, as evidenced in the comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which Mary’s boss quite clearly states that she is being paid less because she is a woman.

Aside from salary issues, women were subject to sexist and discriminatory policies at work. For example, a woman could be fired because she became pregnant. Flight attendants in the 60s (called “stewardesses”) were subject to height, weight, and attractiveness qualifications. And stewardesses could be fired for getting married. After all, the predominantly male clientele on flights wanted unrestricted access to attractive single women whom they could sexually harass with abandon.

This week Fox News icon Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign under allegations of sexual harassment, following his old boss, Roger Ailes, who also left the media giant amid such accusations.

Back when I was a young working college student, there was no such concept as “sexual harassment.” Women were routinely subjected to unwanted comments and advances from co-workers. I remember being forced to kiss my boss – on the lips! – on my last day of work at an insurance agency. There was no recourse available to women until Gloria Steinem’s exposé of the Playboy enterprise brought to light the rampant victimization of women in the workplace.

Today many of the rights women take for granted are imperiled by a conservative movement that wants to relegate women to their past restrictive roles as wives and mothers. Particularly in the area of reproductive rights, legislation is intruding upon the rights of women to obtain contraception and other medical care of their choosing. And as indicated by many recent high profile instances of sexual harassment and domestic violence, as well as the current pay gap of 20% between men and women (aauw.org), women still need to fight for our rights, not take them for granted.

Many young women today dislike the term “feminism,” seeing it as a pejorative term for a ball-busting hater of men. What they need to realize is that without feminism, they would not be enjoying the freedoms and rights they enjoy today. And without continued feminism, those rights may slip away in the future.