Thursday, July 27, 2006

Social Isolation? Enter: YWTF

With catchy alliteration and an emphasis on emergency, Ann Hulbert grabs her readers’ attention in the latest New York Times magazine. People of the United States, we have a “Confidant Crisis” on our hands.

The mere words “Confidant Crisis” make me think of a solitary person flipping through the TV channels in the dark while checking her email, facebook, and myspace accounts obsessively, with not a real friend in sight. Apparently, my first impressions are not far from the gist of the article, which highlights a study in the American Sociological Review, entitled “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades." According to the study, Americans have very few friends with whom they can talk about significant issues. A survey about confidants found, in fact, that most participants only listed two “core” people in whom they could confide, and that less and less Americans are venturing outside the nuclear family to forge these close bonds.

Unfortunately, the most dramatic decrease in relationships has been in the neighborhood/community sector, which is the arena in which many women’s issues are discussed and acted upon. Says one study author, Dr. Lynn Smith-Lovin, "This change indicates something that's not good for our society. Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action." The impact on women’s groups is only too obvious: the loss of members and, possibly, momentum.

The most surprising thing about these findings is that we are in an age of hyper-communication. It therefore seems as if the sheer volume of communication is actually whittling down our close friends and confidants. This is exactly why YWTF seeks to use this hyper-communication to younger women’s advantage. Having just recently started our blog, we hope to connect younger women in even the most alienating and anonymous of atmospheres.

But reading our blog and checking our website is not enough. We as young women have the challenge of networking and advocating in a world which caters to white, middle-class men. Therefore we need to unite through groups such as YWTF in order to increase our visibility and let our voices be heard. And as women ensure a vital part of our nation’s health, it is critical that our leadership be recognized, supported, and nurtured.

As a chapter-based organization that encourages in-person meetings, networking, and community engagement, YWTF has the ability, in fact the power, to lead “civic engagement and local political action” in cities across the nation, the crucial element that Smith-Lovin suggested was missing from general society. Six members of Congress made a similar statement in a recent letter to YWTF: “It is very encouraging to us to know that such dynamic young women are working hard on the ground to promote issues of importance to women. Without your support and advocacy, we would be unable to do our work to ensure that women’s rights and opportunities are protected.”

Therefore, have no fear ladies (and allies). In the growing threat of social isolation, YWTF is that “close network,” that “safety net” for younger women everywhere.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Gender and Science

The news this week has been particularly depressing. A two-front conflict for Israel in the Middle East. If you’re from Boston, you would be reading about how panels from engineering marvel” of the Big Dig collapsed, crushing a woman to death on her way to the airport to pick up family. You would also be reading about train bombings in India and more violence in Baghdad. There was a slice of good news: Stanford biologist Ben Barres, formerly Elizabeth Barres, wrote an essay published in the prestigious journal Nature, detailing how he has been treated differently as a male scientist than when he was female.
The article lends support to the idea that discrimination based upon sex still plays a large role in America’s leading academic institutions. Barres recalls hearing that “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's”. Of course, his “sister” was him as Elizabeth. Furthermore, a professor of his at M.I.T believed that Eizabeth’s “boyfriend” must have solved a difficult problem on the problem set for her.
Barres penned the article in order to add to the debate that former Harvard president, Larry Summers, ignited when he made his infamous comments that there is a dearth of top female scientists in academia because female scientists lack “innate ability” (as opposed to experience discrimination). I was a student at the time and was on campus for the firestorm that followed. I was horrified that the president of our university could make such ridiculous claims—but even more aghast that the undergraduate population was, for the most part, unmoved by his comments. In the dining hall or in class, there would invariably be students who would argue that there was some truth to his comments. At the end of the discussion, the controversy was around academic freedom of speech and not the gender inequity still deeply embedded into campus culture.
Harvard academics are still jumping at the bit to defend Summer’s statements. Stephen Pinker, wrote in response to Barres “polemic” that Barres was turning “Science into Oprah” and should learn “to take scientific hypotheses less personally.” Interestingly, Pinker also described himself as a feminist and believes that bias could play a role in the number of women at the highest levels of science. However, he doesn’t believe that bias is a large factor, and it is that women self-select out of these fields into fields in which they would be happier. He also believes that while the majority of women are not innately suited to be “hard scientists,” this “empirical evidence” should not be confused with the moral issue of fairness in how “individual women” are treated. However, how is it possible to believe that the woman in the board room or the laboratory is your equal when she is simply a surprising exception?
A colleague of Pinker’s, Proffessor Lawrence, was quoted as saying the “rat race” in science is skewed in favor of pushy, aggressive people -- most of whom, he said, happen to be men. “We should try and look for the qualities we actually need,” he said. “I believe if we did, that we would choose more women and more gentle men. It is gentle people of all sorts who are discriminated against in our struggle to survive.”
Outside of the fact that it is dangerous to code “woman” as automatically “gentle” while the “gentle men” are exceptions to that rule, Pinker’s attitude is fundamentally more harmful to the chances of younger women in male-dominated fields. His willingness to discount discrimination as a cause and his desire to shut down the debate with Barres through personal invectives, means that the actual experience of women in the higher ranks—and those that are no longer pursuing careers in science, are swept neatly under the rug. Although Larry Summers is no longer president (for reasons outside of the women in science debacle), the debate on campus has similarly been silent about gender discrimination on campus.
For more information check out the American Association of University Women report on women and tenure here.

A Manifesto for Women of the World...?


I can definitely see why Linda Hirshman’s book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, is so controversial. Not only are her ideas challenging traditional gender norms (good), but she writes in such a biting and unforgiving manner as to make even the liberal women cringe (not so good). Personally, I had to get past her condescending tone in order to focus on some of the good points of her book, which I will list below:

1) Women should lead a flourishing life. I think we can all agree with that. Hirshman’s idea of a flourishing life is inevitably tied to the workplace, which, when considering the emotional, intellectual, and financial benefits of working, makes sense. (More on which work and which women she excludes from her thesis later.)

2) Women need to stay in the workplace in order to help all women, and to change society. It’s undeniable that with the loss of powerful women to the family life, women as a whole lose an edge in our struggle for equality. Hirshman worries that if “women at the top” abandon their positions, the “ruling class” will be “overwhelmingly male,” with disastrous consequences.

3) “[T]here’s a powerful social system in place directing [women] homeward.” True.

4) Women should be better at educating themselves for jobs, as well as bargaining in the workplace and at home. It is indeed crucial that we women stand up for our worth, and in the first place, know our worth. Being assertive to gain what we want at work and in our family lives will only lead to (Hirshman’s favorite phrase) a “flourishing life.”

And my favorite…
5) “Why should the patriarchal workplace be bulldozed and the patriarchal family left untouched?” Great point. We need to attack all systems of patriarchy, not stop when it comes too close to home (forgive the pun). We need to demand that our partners share half (or more) of the household chores and childcare responsibilities. Whether we need to impose a reproductive strike against men, as Hirshman suggests, is to be debated.

Of course, I can’t leave Hirshman without also discussing the many flaws I see with her argument, and mostly, with its execution:

1) Her condescending and insulting tone. Hirshman’s doesn’t just criticize society and the decisions women make…she criticizes the women themselves. I find it interesting that while Hirshman (at least five times) alludes to an insult hurled at working women – that their lives amount to “a pile of pay stubs” – she has no problem dishing out some nasty comments of her own, in a manner I would call mud-slinging.
A couple examples:
“…their talent and education are lost from the public world to a private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos.”
And, about a stay-at-home who wrote to Hirshman about continuing with political activism despite being at home: “Why would the congressmen she writes to listen to someone whose life so resembles that of a toddler, Harvard degree or no?”
Ouch. And don’t even try to tell me “the truth hurts.” Hirshman said it like that on purpose.

2) Her implied disregard for anyone who deals with children. Hirshman seems to forget a crucial part of her plan: assuming that children need the care of other humans, there must be some people to take care of the kids while she and other privileged women go to work. Either Hirshman doesn’t include these women in her argument, or she just doesn’t see them, period. It seems as though Hirshman is so focused on instructing her darling educated, middle- to upper-class women that she forgets there are lower-class women, especially those who have to care for the working women’s children, or do the working women’s housework. Oops.

And Hirshman’s classist undertones continue…

3) Hirshman, in a scathing explanation as to why Gloria Steinem utterly ruined feminism, states, “Under her [Steinem’s] uncritically accepting eye, feminism expanded to embrace every oppressed group.” I’m sorry, is there a problem with supporting the causes of all oppressed peoples? This kind of tone sounds dangerously close to the early white feminists’ sentiment that black women and men shouldn’t be included in their fight for justice. What would feminism be like, I wonder, if this elitist notion of justice weren’t challenged?

4) Hirshman is only arguing for the educated, middle-class women. And I quote, “Organized feminism should say […] We think the educated middle-class women who were always the core of the feminist movement should seek and keep the interesting, well-paid jobs that middle-class men have.” I believe Hirshman has just left out entire groups of women, mainly the lower class. What’s more, saying that middle-class women “were always the core of the feminist movement” implies both that these women are more entitled than all other women, and that the feminist movement always has been and should remain white and middle-class (both parts being untrue). I get scared when I see statements like that.

So I guess it boils down to this: Hirshman has some great ideas, and she’s certainly passionate. Where she goes wrong is in her abrasive tone and the classist attitude which underlies her entire book. I wouldn’t take such issue if Get to Work didn’t have the subtitle, A Manifesto for Women of the World. In reality, it’s more like a manifesto for women in Hirshman’s world.

Feminism is Not an Island

Last semester, I was sitting in my Culture and Society class when suddenly I realized: I was outnumbered.

I was one of maybe three feminists, or women’s advocates even, in a room of twenty. Not only that, but this class was predominantly female (a reflection of my college’s population). So, let’s do a simple deduction here: who accounted for most of the anti-feminist sentiment? The other young women, of course.

The fact that women, young women especially, can call themselves anti-feminist is still baffling to me. It is, in fact, a relatively new revelation that has left me a bit more of a cynic. I wonder how women can dismiss feminism and, when asked why, can only offer stereotypes as an answer. I’m now beginning to wonder if we feminists tend to dismiss women ignorant of feminism too quickly.

My question, or maybe my challenge, is: Are we cutting off our own movement?

Do we too easily sit in our women’s studies classrooms, or in our women’s groups, and discuss women’s issues amongst ourselves without ever trying to include the women who can’t afford higher education, or the women who aren’t in our networks? Why do younger women misunderstand feminism so grossly? I’m willing to blame a lot of it on the media’s misrepresentation of feminism, but if we allow this media to be the only source from which people - especially our target audience - derive their information, then it is our fault as well.

I know that many of us young women have been hurt when trying to share our views. We’ve been shut down by conservatives, told we were hysterical by self-satisfied men, and written off as man-hating bitches by most of society. It’s our duty now, however, to keep trying. We’ve got to keep talking – to everyone, not just to each other. If we don’t, our society will fall back upon the stereotypes that keep feminism an outsider. But if we do…well then, we just might further a movement.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Why does it always come down to sex?

Sex as in gender, that is.

I’m talking about the way that many of my fellow Christians will profess equality for men and women, but only up to a certain point. That point usually comes when they realize that women’s equality conflicts with the old adage that men are the “spiritual head of the household,” no matter what, not to mention the whole “wives, submit to your husbands” thing.

Though these statements may be Biblically based (and many die-hard conservative sexist Christians will avow to that) I don’t see why it applies to our world today, and why we can’t see it as another way in which the Bible is a reflection of the culture in which it was written. Does it really make sense nowadays to grant men spiritual power over their wives simply because they have a penis? I don’t think so. In fact, it didn’t make sense then, either, but it seems that two thousand years ago the society was a lot more patriarchal…therefore to use such statements about women as strict mores for our current lifestyle practices ignores the fact that we’ve made any kind of progress (and by “we” I mean both humanity and women specifically). To me, that seems wrong on so many levels.

The reason I bring this up is that, as a (liberal) Christian, I've had a string of conversations with several other Christians about their views on equality, and each conversation has been initially hopeful and yet ultimately disappointing. (I won't even get into the discussions on abortion and homosexuality.) The latest of these instances was with my cousin, who’s in seminary right now on his way to becoming a minister. He had recently started working with a Baptist church, and, knowing the traditional stance the Baptist denomination takes against women in leadership roles, I asked him what his views were.

The conversation started off well. He was appalled that women were kept out of ministry and started listing off strong women from the Bible (admitting that it’s unfortunate more women weren’t recorded). He also said that he felt that the “wives, submit to your husbands” point was more about living in the circumstances you’re faced with, much like the highly-contested “slaves, obey your masters” line (which will not be discussed here, in my paltry efforts toward brevity). However, when I, encouraged by his stance, said I didn’t think men should automatically be the spiritual heads of the household, he started back-tracking a little. Let’s just say that he leaned toward the view that men are naturally endowed as better leaders, which translates into their roles in the household…he was actually unsure of what he meant himself (which is kind of a good sign) and we ended on a polite but unresolved note.

I could go on about this for days, but my point is, why are there so few Christians who believe in total equality for women and men? Thankfully, I am continually encouraged by things such as the book, Faith and Feminism, and the blog, Churchgal. I just wish there was more encouragement out there for those who think faith can be feminist and feminists can have faith.

"Opting In" versus "Opting Out"

The choices for young women seem to be shrinking. Having a family excludes making partner at the law firm, and having a career excludes being a "good mother." Lisa Belkin raised the cultural antennas when she penned the short article, " The Opt-Out Revolution", detailing a few stories about extremely wealthy women who chose to "Opt-Out" of high-paying careers in order to stay at the home full-time.

The New York Times fanned the flames of this trend by publishing on its front page a story about female undergraduates at prestigious schools planning on staying at home full-time. This then resulted in a backlash from Linda Hirschman, published at American Prospect, who wrote that women who "opted out" were doing a disservice to women everywhere. Panic ensued.

I felt this fear first hand when I attended a Women's Leadership Conference at Harvard, featuring thirty undergraduate women who were leaders on campus. We came together for a week to network, do leadership training, and talk about issues facing younger women in leadership positions. The grand majority of the week was spent dealing with anxiety around solving the all important "work-life balance." However, the conversation was repetitive and never seemed to offer a solution. Rather, it seemed like squandering an opportunity to actually talk about and enhance leadership.

Meghan O'Rourke in Slate.com brings up a new perspective to the debate, and complicates some of Hirschman’s claims. O'Rourke writes that women need to recognize that there is a collective struggle, and that in order to achieve full equality, women need to literally work for it. At first, I was put off by the article. It seemed to merely reinforce the problems that plague the "opting out" debate. It focuses on a small number of privileged, elite women who actually do have a financial choice and the luxury to make it. It further privileges a heterosexual norm of relationships. Relatedly, it is difficult to swallow the idea that "all women" are in a "collective struggle." It further ignores the feminist issues of who is left in order to support the "working woman." Those legions of women who hold domestic jobs as nanny's, day care providers, maids, et cetera are rendered invisible even more by being ignored as "working."

Those criticisms aside, however, the Slate article give suggesions for practical important issues based upon practicality, in a much easier to swallow form than Hirchman. For example:

"If you buy her argument, then even if you find it hard to leave your baby at home, and even if you find the workplace sometimes less-than-fulfilling, it's important—to society as a whole—that you work. This sounds extreme, but of course it's the lesson every man is taught when he's a boy: Your responsibility to society—the way to become an adult—is to work. "

Even easier, she says that you can choose to partner with someone who is only willing to do the household/child-rearing work fifty/fifty, and must be as devoted to that as you are. However, there must be more creative solutions out there that tons of younger women have been employing. Solutions, I'm willing to bet, that haven\'t been written about in the New York Times. Personally, I've been sticking with the idea of finding a partner as committed to living a feminist life as I am. But I want to hear more. So share your thoughts!

Happy Fourth,
Dara