Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Reaction to Lean In: I Want a Feminist "Catfight"

A common misconception among feminists and those curious about feminist thought is that women need to stop criticizing other women. Taking it further, some people believe feminists must not criticize other feminists. Sheryl Sandberg talks about the shortness of Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave and the criticism that followed her announcement in her new book, “Lean In.” I agree with her that Mayer has been labeled “the CEO that represents all working mothers,” and that is unfair. I think some of the criticism of Mayer’s maternity leave, her personal choice, is undeserved. But I disagree with her assertion that women need to stop criticizing each other, especially feminists who criticize other feminists.

Political and social movements need introspection. There are plenty of groups that could benefit from a little introspection. The Republican Party is a great example. Feminists may agree on some of the main problems that need to be addressed, such as pay equity, maternity leave, and rape culture, but feminists differ on what solutions are best. Some feminists are “choice” feminists who believe all choices women make should be celebrated and others believe that the reasons behind those choices are still relevant and influenced by traditional gender roles, as Sandberg does.

Sandberg laments the fact that Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem did not get along, to say the least. Friedan considered some of Steinem’s statements about marriage and relationships with men too extreme. In the book “Interviews with Betty Friedan,” edited by Janann Sherman, Friedan said of her feud with Steinem:

“They can’t seem to understand that every important movement is going to have a certain amount of fighting over turf. Men do it all the time in politics…When she said marriage was a form of prostitution, I spoke up and criticized her. Her view had nothing to do with my kind of feminism and I said so…That extreme kind of thinking tends to come from women who hate having to deal with the complexities of juggling a career and a family and so, almost literally, they want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

What Sandberg fails to realize is how these disagreements between feminists of different eras helped grow the feminist movement. Steinem wanted to bring feminism in a new, and I would argue a more inclusive and progressive, direction. For example, “The Feminine Mystique” benefitted many white middle class women living as housewives, but it didn’t apply to women of a different sociological background, who always had to work. Their issues were different. Friedan was also considered hostile to the gay rights movement. In a New York Observer article, Alix Kates Shulman said Friedan called feminist lesbians the “lavender menace.” In “The Feminine Mystique,” she argued that housewives who smothered their children with affection could turn their sons gay through resentment of women, and in the context of her argument, I doubt this was considered a positive result. Friedan wrote:

“Whether or not there has been an increase of homosexuality in America, there has certainly been in recent years an increase in its overt manifestations. I do not think this is unrelated to the national embrace of the feminine mystique. For the feminine mystique has glorified and perpetuated in the name of femininity a passive, childlike immaturity which is passed on from mothers to sons, as well as daughters.  Male homosexuals—and the male Don Juans, whose compulsion to test their potency is often caused by unconscious homosexuality—are, no less than the female sex-seekers, Peter Pans, forever childlike…”

Steinem also made major inroads to include more feminists of color and allied the feminist movement with the civil rights movement. The feminist conversation is still too dominated by white women, especially upper-middle class white women, but Steinem made progress in that regard. None of this information is meant to demonize Friedan, who founded The National Organization for Women and the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws and fought hard for equal pay, or celebrate Steinem, who has her share of critics over statements she has made about transsexuals and the legalization of prostitution. The feminist movement desperately needed both Friedan and Steinem’s contributions, despite their disagreements. Without one, there wouldn’t be the other.

We can’t discourage feminists from arguing with each other. I understand that Sandberg is concerned with the portrayal of women engaging in perceived “catfights.” She wants feminists to work together in order to solve major problems. But feminism’s birthing pains helped it grow into a stronger, more diverse movement. As Sandberg points out, women have major hurdles to jump over. Women are still underrepresented in management and held back from pursuing promotions and engaging in office discussions. If “Lean In” proves anything, it is that the solutions to these problems will not be easy to find or straightforward. The issues she describes are nuanced and complicated. These are the kind of problems that must be solved by a diverse group of people with conflicting views. We need creative solutions, which we will never hope to find if we brush over our conflicts or shut out people or who are likely to disagree.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Interview with Samhita Mukhopadhyay: Outdated

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the editor of Feministing.com, answered questions

about her book, “Outdated: How Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life.” Mukhopadhyay

tells women to stop reading dating advice books that reinforce antiquated ideas

about the way men and women should behave. She talks about the challenge to stay

true to her feminist ideals while living in a world that punishes women for straying

away from the goal of white weddings and monogamy.

 You say chivalry isn’t dead but it should be. How do feminist women

 reject old-fashioned ideas such as paying for dinner without offending someone?

I don’t think chivalry is inherently bad. Every time someone is nice and

compassionate, that’s a good thing. What’s very problematic is when there are

power expectations attached to it, like that if he has paid for everything there is an

expectation to put out. There needs to be distancing between the expectation of

what you have to do because I’m a man and she’s a woman.

            What specifically should women do when it’s time to pay the bill?

Women could do a variety of things. I usually assume we will split the bill.

There is this thinking that if he isn’t paying, ‘Are we on a date or are we not on a

date?’ and you need to think beyond that as an indication. Maybe it’s something else.

Maybe he couldn’t afford it. If someone makes three times more money than you do,

I think it’s okay to let him pay.

You acknowledge that women often neglect their friendships once they have a

boyfriend. How do you reconnect with a friend?

It’s a slippery slope when women feel they’ve neglected their friendship and

they internalize some shame about that. But being with friends doesn’t mean you

have to be without your partner. When you go out with friends, your partner can

meet with them. That segregation can happen when you get self-involved in your

relationship but it takes recognizing it for yourself. But I think real friends will

forgive you.

You say fashion can be feminist. Do you think the fashion and beauty industry is

controversial within the feminist community?

It is a major conflict within the generational divide. Mainly it’s older feminists

criticizing younger feminists that have an interest in fashion. We need to know

where things come from and what the labor issues are and recognize unfair beauty

 standards for young women. But there is also this tremendous potential to express

yourself through punk and riot grrrl fashion. There’s room for criticism but also


You say the wedding industry is draining people of their money and reinforcing

the idea that women’s happiness is tied to marriage. How has the industry has


Weddings have become more expensive over the last 40 years. It’s not like it

was, where you have a wedding in your grandparents’ backyard and your mom

caters it. Marriage is still seen as a way to grow up. It’s the inherent next step. And

the finances and money that are expected have excluded a lot of people. It’s more

like an affluent proposition between two wealthy people.

Do you suggest the government give equal benefits to single people?

It’s important to extend those incentives to others. Marriage rights have been

a tremendous platform for gay marriage but it has left out a lot of people like single

black mothers and other outliers and subgroups that are demonized in the media.

It’s going in the right direction but the cultural benefits still help people in


You discuss how casual sex was enjoyable for you until you realized men still

 had the upper hand in the relationship. Is it possible for women to have casual sex as


I think there isn’t much we can do. We are living within the power structure

so the power structure will replicate itself in a relationship. But I’m not saying you

can’t have casual sex as a feminist. Women are good at negotiating our own power

whether it’s in a workplace or in our relationships and it would be the same in

casual sex. There is also the potential for really sexist behavior on the behalf of the

men you’re involved with as there is elsewhere in our lives but you need to know

what you want and what your expectations are.

You say it is possible for open relationships to work even though they didn’t

work for you. Do you know people who have made open relationships work?

The people it works for have a very strong sense of confidence in themselves

and their sexuality and what they need from a partner. It is a legitimate alternative

lifestyle and there has been smart analysis that monogamy can’t always work for

 people. I’ve seen it at its most successful for bisexual or gay sexual partners. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Race is Not a Preference

The first time I heard someone refer to discrimination as “preference,” I was exchanging in small talk with a fellow student. I thought the question he asked me was strange.
“Do you have a preference for who you date, like you don’t date black guys or Asian guys?”
"No, I don’t have a preference. Why? Do you?”
“No, I mean I’ll date all races pretty much, except I don’t really date black girls.”
“Um, I don’t know, it’s just a, um, attitude thing I guess.”
There is racism that happens behind closed doors, the consequences of which bubbles up in both large and small inconveniences to people of color every day. It is the kind of racism that people sense but aren't 100 percent positive of because they can't see the evidence, such as a potential employer discarding a resume emboldened with the name “Maria Cruz” or someone questioning if a black politician is able to connect to his or her life values. But one of the last acceptable and most brazen forms of racism comes from the carefree ability some men, white men in particular, are comfortable telling people they have excluded an entire race from their dating prospects, whether in person or on an online dating site.
Here are the results of an OKCupid survey on the relationship between the race of the person messaging and likeliness the person will message them back:
I don't know how people discern their preference to date only one, two or three races from racism in its purist form. When challenged on it, men often say they are just picking physical criteria, like preferring blue eyes or blonde hair. But it isn’t, considering how these characteristics vary so widely from within one race. A Hispanic woman can have blonde hair, but it often isn’t blonde hair that these men are worshipping, it’s the idea of whiteness itself.
Historically, white and Asian women have been “awarded” all of the femininity stereotypes, such as being perceived as innately demure, and nurturing. If a man is interested in dating only white women and/or Asian women, it is a red flag to me that not only is this person racist, which is bad enough, but he is likely a misogynist as well. It tells me that this man is looking for a woman who fits a narrow definition of femininity, one that reduces me to the Madonna side of the Madonna/Whore complex.
Conversely, black women are portrayed as my fellow student expressed. They have an “attitude,” which is code for “emasculating.” Black women (as well as Hispanic women) have also been labeled as promiscuous and less intelligent. If you have any doubt, look at Gone With The Wind, with its masculine Mammy or dumb and irresponsible Prissy or more recently Ally McBeal's independent and flirtatious best friend Renee, whose overt sexuality lands her in trouble and Modern Family's bubbly and irrational Gloria.
I'm surprised, though perhaps it's naive, that some of my white feminist friends aren't really appalled by the "preference" problem. Whatever gender biases white women face, women of color face them to a magnified degree. Every gender stereotype, from being manipulative to too masculine, are all charges men level at women of all colors when they wish to minimize our power. By not challenging the preference statement, due to some unconscious apathy or their own inner racism, white feminists are supporting another system of inequality as well as supporting the same gender tropes they also suffer from.

 (Originally published 11/9/2012)

Why Feminine Wiles Are Less Valuable Than Andrew Goldman Thinks

The Twitter wars always teach us something valuable about sexism, racism and overall bigotry. This week was no exception.
The New York Times Magazine writer Andrew Goldman came under fire for a question he posed to Tippi Hedren, which implied she should have been grateful to sleep her way to the top with the great Alfred Hitchcock.
The author Jennifer Weiner tweeted:
Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping way to top.
Goldman responded:
Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked to at least have opportunity to sleep way to top.
Thank you Andrew Goldman, for expressing what so many people think.
In 2012, this discussion should be rare, but it isn't. Throughout my journalism career, I’ve heard male colleagues complain that women are better at getting sources to return our phone calls or answer our questions because we have feminine wiles at our disposal.
What many men, and some women, fail to understand, is that this theory only covers a subgroup of women, that as Andrew Goldman so kindly pointed out, are conventionally attractive.
The second, but most important, point:
You can’t ignore that this “advantage” exists, assuming it does exist, because the people with resources, be it money, influence or valuable information, are men. Politicians, CEOs, economists, scholars, police, community leaders, etc. are predominantly male. All of my editors, through internships and my job, were men, and this is not an anomaly.
Don't the men who argue this theory understand that more women in positions of power can only help lift women up? The mindset that fails to grasp this logic is the same mindset that only recognizes women who are young or beautiful or both. If these men thought of women moving through different stages of life, they would realize that more women in authority help young women advance their careers, so they are bureau editor or senior correspondent when they are 45, not a reporter living under relatively the same salary as they did at 25.
Let us also examine the consequences of this “advantage” Andrew Goldman believes a charmed subgroup of women enjoy.
As a result of ancient stereotypes, further perpetuated in television and the movies (Reese Witherspoon has played all of them), these women now live under the specter of “bimbo.” You can try to escape the image by wearing glasses and letting those heels gather dust under your bed, but you can’t stop being a bimbo unless you stop being young and female.
If you’ve ever read an article about how to prepare your makeup for a job interview, it’s hard to ignore the fact that women can’t be attractive and hirable at once. It’s too taxing. Pick a side.
Allure magazine reported a study that concluded interviewers always prefer some makeup to a bare face, but when the looks became more dramatic: “People saw them as equally likeable and much more attractive and competent but less trustworthy.”
A 2011 study conducted on job applicants in Europe and Israel found that attractive men who included headshots on their resumes were more likely to be called back than plain men. Women were more likely to get called back if they didn’t provide a picture at all. Attractive women were especially judged for including pictures on their resumes because it was assumed they were using their looks to secure the job.
In short, the next time you consider your female colleagues blessed, think again. Ask yourself: When was the last time you thought people wouldn’t take you seriously because of how you look, instead of how you behave?
(Originally published 10/15/2012)

Amanda Todd and Stigmatization of Nude Female Bodies

The recent teen suicide of Amanda Todd made me think about how the nude female body has been both exalted and torn down by men and women for centuries. Throughout our lives, even as children, we’ve been taught that our bodies are something to be ashamed of.
Women learn that their bodies exist for sexuality very early on. Our teachers, our parents, friends' parents, and community leaders teach us this from grade school to college and beyond.
I'll never forget the day the school librarian buttoned up my shirt because she thought my neckline was too low. "How does her mother let her come to school looking like that?" she said. It never occurred to me that my baggy flannel shirt needed two more buttons, because eight year-olds don't have breasts. I thought that being a child desexualized me, but it turned out that the only requirement for such judgment was that I be female.
Thus it does not come as any surprise to me that women are well acquainted with these judgments. Unfortunately, it also didn’t come as a surprise to me that Amanda Todd became so distraught that she could no longer live with herself; all because her community had seen her naked breasts. For women, class has always been inextricably linked to the covering or uncovering of the body. When you show your body, a commodity in its own right, to too many people, it loses its value, mainstream culture suggests. Because women tie their worth and therefore their class to the body, the thought that an image of their body could be shared with the world is all too terrifying.
A lot of faux-concerned journalists and legitimately concerned parents think the solution is obvious: We tell those young women to be careful and stop bearing their naked bodies to random people through downloadable photos. There are several problems with that plan. Young women, like young men, make mistakes. Young men can streak a football field or send pictures of their penises to women they hardly know, and their lives are hardly forever ruined.
The real solution won’t be the easy quick fix most parents are looking for. We need to de-stigmatize the naked female body.
Photograph by Helmut Newton
It starts with us, talking to our daughters, nieces, and students about what they’ve done and what they’ve said, not how they much skin they bare or how they present their appearance. It starts with small every day actions. When you berate your three year-old daughter for removing her shirt, ask yourself if you would react the same had you had a three year-old son. Don’t tell a student you approve or disapprove of her dress. If your teen daughter’s once private naked pictures become public, tell her she has nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t tell her this because it’s comforting. Tell her this because it’s true. Amanda Todd wasn't guilty of anything else but having a female body. It’s too bad her classmates didn’t know that.
(Originally published 11/12/12)

What Cannibal Cops and Princesses Have in Common

My mother once told me a story about a southern gentleman she dated. He had impeccable manners and showered her with gifts. Until the day she broke up with him. He attempted to lock her in his car and informed her that she wasn’t “allowed” to stop seeing him.
Be careful of men who treat you like a princess, she said. Those are the ones you have to watch out for.
Starts like this
Could end like this:

The news of “cannibal cop” Gilberto Valle reminded me of this nugget of wisdom. His OKCupid profile contained several red flags that seem fairly innocuous, if not sweet.
He considers himself a “true gentleman” and chivalry is important to him. He wrote that he likes to open doors and pull out chairs for women, as well as “spoil the heck” out of them. He’s also looking for a lady with “good values,” whatever that means.
In itself, there is nothing wrong with being courteous to your date or wanting to give your significant other presents. Every day women walk in and out of buildings while some well-intentioned, kind man holds the door open. Those men don’t even plan to boil them over a hot stove afterward.
But there is something in his comments, and in the boasting of chivalrous deeds in general, that should concern women.
As picturesque as it is, chivalry was invented to control and manipulate women. Kate Millet made this point best in Sexual Politics, the book that forever ingrained the idea that the personal is political in the minds of second wave feminists.
“One realizes how much of a concession traditional chivalrous behavior represents – a sporting kind of reparation to allow the subordinate female certain means of saving face. While palliative to the injustice of a woman’s social position, chivalry is also a technique for disguising it.”
In a nutshell, this answers the question I always ask when men make a point of their chivalry. What is he trying to make up for? If a man is a gentleman, does he need to explicitly remind women of it? Or is he trying to distract her from the things she's losing by allowing him to control her behavior?
Chivalry also depends on a sense of entitlement. “I (insert empty ritual) on all of our dates and I paid for (dinner, drinks, movie tickets) while I listened to you talk about (your work, your friends, other things unrelated to myself) and now you won’t go out with me again? I guess nice guys finish last.”
Even friendship is considered something chivalrous men give their sexual prospects, until they feel the woman has “friendzoned” them. I can’t recall any woman who has expressed delight at the knowledge her crush didn’t feel the same but I have never heard outrage or contempt. The fact that images like this are circulating the internet should give women pause over the term “friendzoned.”
I would never berate a man for performing a kind, however meaningless, gesture. But if that man defines his romantic identity and his relationship with women, by that gesture, I would avoid him. Most women are better off being partners, not princesses.

(Originally published 10/28/12)

The Last Unicorns: Democratic Female Governors Retiring This Year

Imagine Andrew Cuomo and Deval Patrick attend the Democratic Governors’ Association Conference together. They sit at a table in the back of the room so they can safely discuss football and Mila Kunis without judgment. It's hard to be the only two gentleman governors present, but together, they'll make it through the day.
Now imagine there are only two female Democratic governors in the country. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue are stepping down after the 2012 elections.
What adds insult to injury? Governors are goofballs. Have you seen the people we’ve elected to executive office? You can't complain that there aren't enough dignified women running for governor when you have these guys:
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich
Remember the hair, the track suit, the corruption, the talk show visits post-corruption and pre-trial? He’s also the sixth Illinois governor to be indicted or arrested, so this is not a total fluke.
Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford
Cheating aside, former Mark Sanford showed a pretty bold disregard for the responsibility of public office when he disappeared for nearly a week.
Florida Governor Rick Scott
Let’s be fair and ignore the fact that Rick Scott looks like a cross between Mr. Clean and well, any number of colorful Middle Earth characters. His efforts to drug test state employees and welfare recipients have been declared costly and unconstitutional.
Rick Perry
Looks like a governor. Until he speaks.
Sarah Palin.
You could rejoice at the idea that there are six women governors altogether but all four Republicans diametrically oppose a woman’s right to choose. At a time when statehouses feel emboldened as ever to limit women's reproductive choices, there are only two female pro-choice executives, which could mean the passage of more bills requiring mandatory ultrasounds, limiting access to abortion care, and banning telemedicine.
Even compared to little more than a decade ago, our country is failing at gender parity in statewide elective office, at 23 percent today compared to 28 percent in 2001, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek article.
The states would appear to offer slightly better opportunities for women, however, at an average 23 percent compared to Congress, where women make up only 16.8 percent of those 535 seats.
In case you’re wondering which states offer the least opportunities for women officeholders, South Carolina wins at 9 percent, with Oklahoma (12.8 percent), Alabama (13.6 percent) and Wyoming (14.4 percent) trailing behind, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
I could note that these states voted for McCain in 2008, and blame this lack of progress on Republican leadership but it isn’t fair to let the Democrats off the hook. New York (23 percent), falls woefully behind Colorado (40 percent) and Vermont (38 percent).
It is impossible to know what goes on when leaders of each state’s respective party, and important donors, get together and talk about who represents their best chance to win the governor’s seat. It is impossible to peer into the minds of all 300 million plus Americans to understand their views on gender and politics, or to know the exact reasons why more women don’t run for political office.
But is clear that we’ve failed at least one major tenet of democracy when more than half of the population is represented by 12 percent of the nation’s governors and 16 percent of Congress.

(Originally published 9/30/2012)