• Two stories caught my eye this morning, both relating to families.  In oneBoston Globe columnist Shirley Leung champions the rights of mothers to return to work the week they give birth.  In the other in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Parkinson in Istanbul and David George-Cosh in Toronto analyze the ways Nilufer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, a drowned, 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy, has gone viral.

    What’s the link between the two pieces?  “We” still haven’t figured out what our responsibilities are to all families: men, women, and children around the world.

    As for Leung’s piece, when will privileged women who work in highly-paid jobs re-frame their choices so that they lobby for the rights of all parents — men, women, rich, poor?  I get that women are judged unfairly when they choose to “go back to work” soon after giving birth, while the decisions and behaviors of their privileged male counterparts receive nary an eyebrow raise. The different standards and treatments deserve scrutiny.  But.  The bigger issue is that they have choices. They have jobs to return to, they can choose when they want to return to work, and, most probably, they can even decide IF they want to return to work.  What doesn’t get said?  They can afford the best possible child care that enables them to leave their infants behind.  To write a piece that does not mention the role privilege plays in women’s choices is to miss the bigger picture…

    …of the picture.  Nilufer Demir — a woman — captured what may turn out to be the single most compelling image of the Syrian refugee crisis: a toddler, face-down on the beach, drowned in his family’s attempt to find safety in the EU.  Several important points, here:

    Until we sidestep nationalism and bring our attention to crises around the world affecting families and young children, we aren’t doing justice to the principles of feminism.

    The photographer Demir answered questions about the photos she took of dead refugees washing up on the beach.  She was asked “as a woman,” how she felt seeing the dead toddler on the beach.  “As a woman?”  Why would anyone assume that a woman’s grief would be any different from a man’s when seeing dead children washing in with the tide?

    Last: why are “we” moved to act when confronted with the image of what “we” consider the most innocent victim, a child?  All refugees are innocent victims.  What has any of these men, women, or children done to deserve the chaos inflicted on them by people who put power, -isms, and money ahead of the wellbeing of families?

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  • A while back, when Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg first published her book, Lean In, I argued that the concept of using social media to bring women together in consciousness raising groups was terrific, but that Sandberg’s formulation was flawed.  I’m excited to read an article in today’s Boston Globe that a domestic worker fighting to unionize at an area hotel has challenged Sandberg to lean into her cause.  The only way we’ll make real change happen in this country is to work across lines of difference (race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion).  Real change doesn’t just improve some peoples’ lives.  It has a positive effect on everybody.

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  • I can’t improve on Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times yesterday, Pom-Pom Girl for Feminism, in which she takes down Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  Lean In will hit the shelves and its website will go live March 11, 2013. Sandberg wants women to think positively about moving up through corporate America’s glass ceiling.  She’s pushing to get women meeting monthly in small groups, where we will empower one another “to explore topics critical to [our] success, from negotiating effectively to understanding [our] strengths.”  Dowd complains that the wildly successful Silicon Valley exec “doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign.”  Dowd, herself, is inclined to “lean out.”

    But me, I’m in favor of leaning in.  Closer.

    I wholeheartedly endorse Sandberg’s impulse to get women in small groups to recreate a ’70s-style consciousness raising vibe.  The issue — now and in the 1970s — is who belongs in the group.  The single biggest problem with American women’s attempts to organize for rights over time, from the 1840s to the present, is its inability and/or unwillingness to consider class and race.  Our contemporary women’s movement does not need another wealthy, articulate white woman encouraging increased dialogue among similarly entitled peers. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Betty Friedan…not to take away from the remarkable achievements of these foremothers, but we’ve got to reconfigure our frustrations and rage so that we are angry on behalf of all women, not just ourselves.

    None of us has time to rely on Trickle Down — not in our economic policies, and not in our feminism. Sure, women at the top and women in business generally need better strategies to negotiate for higher salaries and better promotions. But I don’t for a minute believe that by earning these bigger paychecks and securing higher-powered jobs, better-off women will be paving the way for the poorest, most disenfranchised women in the country. They’ll be paving the way for themselves.

    If any of us needs a reminder of what women need, here are two, separate examples reported recently:

    The Last Clinic, a powerful, short documentary about the one remaining clinic in Mississippi providing abortions

    and

    Episodes 487 and 488 of This American Life, focusing on gun violence in Chicago’s predominantly African American Harper High School.

    We need to pull together, to lean in closer, so that we are working to ensure that all women have what the richest of us have: affordable health care, day care, sensible parental leave policies, the choice to use affordable birth control, access to nutritious foods, safe neighborhoods, and freedom from abuse, violence, and fear. We need to unify as a group so that we achieve these goals. Then, and only then, will the tide rise high enough to lift all boats.

    So, yeah, create a software platform that allows social media connections and the formation of  consciousness raising groups. Write an algorithm that peoples these groups with members who aren’t like each other in at least three or four profound ways.  Set up guidelines to help us tell our stories to each other. We need to listen deeply. And then? We need to get busy on behalf of each and every one of us.

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  • “Cuba-to-Florida Quest Defeats Swimmer at 61,” the headline reads in today’s New York Times. Diana Nyad, famed marathon swimmer, tried to make her way from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage in one go.  Her shoulder cramped.  She kept swimming. She had an unexpected bout of asthma.  She kept swimming. She began vomiting uncontrollably.  She stopped swimming. Her handlers pulled her from the water, and that was that.

    I want to be supportive of pretty much anything anyone does to challenge themselves, but this venture struck me as kinda dumb. But, then, I don’t get mountain climbing, either. So what if you can swim from Cuba to Florida? Or climb K2? Seems like a huge waste of money, plus it’s really dangerous. And you could leave people who love you feeling awful forever if something bad were to happen. Like if you were to die.

    In addition to my usual “hunh,” I didn’t respect Nyad’s motives.  She told reporters she was feeling bad about getting old. Or older. Whatever. She announced that “60 is the new 40” and that she wanted to do something that would prove she was in great shape physically and in better shape mentally than ever. “People my age must try to live vital, energetic lives,” she said. “We’re still young. We’re not our mothers’ generation at 60.” And this: “I’m standing here at the prime of my life; I think this is the prime, when one reaches this age.” I rather lost patience when Nyad counseled to “[b]e your best self.” Didn’t Oprah retire, already?

    In yesterday’s newspaper I read about 70+ year olds clamoring for elective plastic surgery. I don’t want anyone discriminating against my saggy old self. But, really, when do I get to let go a little? When can my “best self” admit that it’s not in its prime any more, that it can’t do what it did at 20? When can my “best self” have a bad knee and crow’s feet?

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  • Making my bed, Wellfleet, Mother’s Day 2011, I tucked hospital corners into white cotton sheets — just as my mother taught me.  I folded an ancient Hudson’s Bay four-point blanket in half, smoothing it to rest between sheets and duvet, to keep me warm on my side of the bed.  I first slept under that blanket in 1986 in a bed my mother-in-law made in Taos, New Mexico.  It came to me, here in Massachusetts, when my father-in-law sold the house that held that bed.  I fluffed the duvet in its clean cover this morning, grabbing two corners, following my sister-in-law Katherine’s instructions.  I arranged pillows in their soap-smelling cases, wondering who next would rest here — my husband? I? guests?

    To all the mothers who have taught me to make beds, meals, homes for myself and my family: a wish that wherever you are, you can feel my gratitude.

    To all the young mothers who make beds: a wish that there will be a time — it’s not here, not yet — when you get to make your own bed and sleep in it, without interruption.

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  • Two pieces in yesterday’s New York Times caught my attention  One, by The Times’ ombudsman Arthur S. Brisbane, addressed the paucity of obituaries celebrating women’s lives. The other, by “Motherlode” blogger Lisa Belkin, analyzed the decision of a group of academic psychologists to declare parenthood the pinnacle of human experience. Both Brisbane and Belkin were well-intentioned, but both missed the implications or their arguments on the connection between parenthood and women’s lives.

    Brisbane was addressing reader Mike Sponder’s complaint that The New York Times seems to publish women’s and men’s obituaries at a 1:8 ratio. “Women rarely die, it seems,” Sponder quipped. Brisbane turned over Sponder’s observation to Times obituary editor Bill McDonald. McDonald wrote that the Times has to “narrow the field to those who made the largest imprint and possibly found fame or notoriety in the process.” Given where women were seventy or eighty years ago, when most of these dead people were born, there’s not much chance that they’d make the cut. Brisbane urged McDonald to look harder, contacting organizations such as NOW to cast a wider net.

    Belkin wrote this week’s Times Magazine’s “The Way We Live Now” column about a new configuration of  the hierarchy of needs Abraham Maslow posited in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow theorized that people have to meet low-level needs first (food, shelter, safety) before they can contemplate reaching their full potential, or “self-actualizing.” The tippy top of human experience these days? Parenting. That word used to be thought of as a noun, Belkin noted, but these days it’s a verb whose infinitive form is “to parent.” Belkin was appalled by the new hierarchy.  “Most of all,” she wrote, “it raises the question of whether to sanctify parenting has gone a bit too far.”  The psychologists who put parenting at the top of human experience, just above finding and retaining a mate, she wrote, have lost their sense of perspective. Parents, she proclaimed, are supposed to be making themselves unnecessary, since the goal of parenting is to raise self-sufficient adults.

    Maslow wrote his essay when many of those appearing in current Times obits were born. In other words, his organizing principle of human behavior informed the worldview of those now in their seventies and eighties — as well as obit editor Bill McDonald. By telling McDonald to look harder for notable women, Times ombudsman Arthur Brisbane didn’t challenge the fundamental assumption that greatness and notability appear primarily in the public sphere.

    For her part, Lisa Belkin missed a critical bit of demographic data. Academic fields, especially psychology, have largely been feminized in the last seventy years. When Maslow was busy focusing on self-actualization in 1943, he was writing as a man for a mostly-male audience of academics and practitioners. The group that reconfigured Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t resemble Maslow and his peers. Belkin didn’t mention in her condemnation the possibility that women, who continue to perform the bulk of parenting responsibilities, likely made up a large part of the academic psychologists who declared mating and procreating the pinnacle of human experience. She didn’t consider that for the first time women have had a chance to value their own roles, to publicly declare that what they do (we do) privately matters as much as or more than anything else transpiring on the planet.

    While I, too, am grossed out by the self-indulgence of my generation (and myself) at times, I want to make sure to celebrate this new hierarchy of experience. This ranking values something that has historically been private and unworthy of note. If we follow the reasoning of McDonald, Brisbane, and Belkin, humans who spent and continue to spend much of their lives raising the next generation to be healthy, independent adults aren’t worthy of obituaries in the Times.  If we follow Maslow.2, perhaps we have to rethink what it means to make an impact publicly, since, for the first time, an academic discipline has privileged what has traditionally been women’s private sphere.

    Maybe it’s time for editors and reporters to acknowledge more fully that creating families and caring for others (parenting, nursing, teaching…) at times may well be the way we humans make “the largest imprint,” whether we find “fame or notoriety in the process.”

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  • While Lily was hanging out Sunday at Smith College, getting a sense of what it means to attend an all-women’s institution in the 21st century, I was reading Hilary Mantel’s autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003). Mantel recently won the Mann Booker Prize for her brilliant, challenging novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. The book so intrigued me that I pulled everything of Mantel’s from my branch library’s shelves. The autobiography was among the haul and proved to be a fortuitous read on this particular trip.

    Mantel was studying law in her late teens and early twenties, first at the London School of Economics, then, following her geologist husband, at Sheffield University. She described her disappointment with Sheffield: “one of my tutors was a bored local solicitor who made it plain that he didn’t think women had any place in his classroom.” (153) Mantel’s comment on her tutor’s approach to women’s education is worth sharing:

    Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronize you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into his favor. The birth control revolution of the late sixties had passed our elders by — educators and employers both.  It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of her mental life.  It was assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees. When you went for a job interview, you would be asked, if you were not wearing a wedding ring, whether you were engaged; if you were engaged or married, you would be asked when you intended to ‘start your family.’ Whether you were celibate, or gay, or just a sensible preplanner, you had to smile and jump through the flaming hoops held up for you by some grizzled ringmaster, shifty and semi-embarrassed as he asked a girl half his age to tell him about her sex life and account for her next ovulation. (153-154)

    I wish Mantel had kept her verb tense in the present: why we need the feminist movement so badly. The fight’s not over. Here’s a not-so-subtle statistic I learned during the information session at Smith: at women’s colleges, women hold 100% of all leadership positions. At peer institutions, men hold 90% of all leadership positions. Lily will decide what she’ll decide when it comes to college. Meanwhile, if I had it to do all over again, I’d be inclined to explore women’s colleges with an open mind.

    Mantel titled her memoir “Giving Up the Ghost” as a way to refer to the process she went through as she coped with surgical menopause and subsequent infertility. She was diagnosed with endometriosis in her late 20s. Her illness would end her law career, opening the way for her fiction writing but closing her path to parenthood.  ‘Twould have been excellent if she’d added in one sentence about the importance of not giving up the ghost when it comes to feminism.

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