#YesAllWomen

In college, I volunteered in a fifth grade classroom in East Harlem, teaching conflict resolution. We did a “stand up/sit down” ice breaker: We sat in a circle and someone stood in the middle and said something about himself or herself. Anyone who agreed or had the same experience stood up.

The students were blown away that their teacher listened to rap, that other kids had parents who were divorced, or were afraid that their siblings would join gangs.

The conversation that I remember most visibly was this one:

Me: Was there anything that surprised you?

Child One: I was surprised that the adults (the female teacher and the three female volunteers) stood up when someone said “I’m afraid to walk alone at night.” Because you are ADULTS and we are supposed to walk with ADULTS to be safe. If the adults don’t feel safe, how are we safe?

Me: Well, there is safety in number–

Child Two: It’s because of RAPE.

Child Three: Don’t SAY that.

They then went on to discuss everything else they were afraid of or things that had made them afraid (ghosts, spirits as completely distinct from ghosts, a brother getting killed, seeing someone kill himself). These weren’t kids who were isolated from legitimately frightening things, and now, hopefully, all of those kids are teenagers. I’m not sorry we were honest with them, but I’m sad we had to be.

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Arthur Sulzberger Is a Newspaperman. He Should Have Known Better.

My own short journalism career was largely unimpeded by my gender (the one big gender fight in my college newsroom ended in conversations and e-mails that  could have been a PBS special on forgiveness and understanding), but I still saw it and heard it. The fellow journalism interns who thought nothing about talking about visiting strip clubs while I was standing right next to them, the female reporter who struggled to get cops to take her seriously when she covered a crime scene, the staff photographer at my school paper who was asked not to take the photos on a story I was writing because the editor didn’t think two women should go to a low-security prison, the writer (me!) who didn’t object to that reasoning despite no indication from our sources that the precaution was necessary.

There were messages I was young enough to ignore that said that to rise to the top was to choose journalism over family. There were congressmen who didn’t take me seriously. There was a Senate press corps that was still predominately male to say nothing of the gender imbalance  in financial-related press conferences.

I knew that I was already benefiting from fights of The Girls in the Balcony  by virtue of entering journalism when I did, and, with her appointment as executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson (who also benefitted from those fights) seemed to bust open the glass ceiling long before I was close to hitting it. It seemed that the industry I loved would be a little more likely to love me back. (It turned out, it didn’t, or I didn’t love it as much as I thought I did, but that was not related to my gender).

Abramson, during the announcement of her appointment to executive editor.

The night Jill Abramson was announced as the next executive editor of The New York Times  I couldn’t sleep. Three years later, she was fired. We don’t know the whole story as to why she was fired, but there is reason to be skeptical of claims that is was simply management style, mainly that the Times has had lots and lots of bad managers at the helm. From The New Yorker: 

Another, a prominent reporter, proposed a multiple-choice question: “Tough and abrasive?” (a) Abe Rosenthal (1977-86), (b) Howell Raines (2001-03), (c) Max Frankel (1986-94), (d) Jill Abramson (2011-14), (e) all of the above. “Business is basically good, and the journalism is good, but the culture is bad,” the reporter continued. “But that describes a hundred and fifty years of the paper’s history. It’s always been sociopaths and lunatics running the place. Why step to Jill? People are genuinely upset about that.”

Even if it turns out that Abramson’s lower salary was totally justified, even if it turns out she was a terrible manager, the conversations around her tenure and her management style have been gendered from the start. There was no way they weren’t going to be. And, the conversation around her firing has been gendered. While Sulzberger said that he spoke to female “rising stars” at the Times who didn’t want “special treatment” and didn’t see the firing of Abramson as anything but a decision about an individual, David Carr “heard from several talented young women who are a big part of The New York Times’s future. “’ I really don’t see a path for me here,’  said one. ‘Are we O.K.?’

“Well, that depends on how the next few weeks go and whether The Times can convince female employees that it is a fair place to work, with ample opportunity to advance,” Carr wrote.

Carr concluded that Sulzberger’s assessment of Abramson’s management failings was correct, but the fact is that the way that the firing was handled at the Times scared some of the women who worked there, made them doubt that there were cracks in the glass ceiling. The coverage of the firing, both the carefully reported and the sensational, didn’t help. I read that coverage and couldn’t remember any of that thrill I had three years ago.

Sulzberger owns a newspaper–THE newspaper. He and his staff should understand messaging and the ways that messages can be unintentionally transmitted or mistranslated. Regardless of what really happened in the lead-up to Abramson’s firing, it’s inexcusable that Sulzberger  didn’t understand that female journalists everywhere were going to see Abramson’s sudden and unceremonious dismissal as a message about the metaphorical glass ceilings in the Times’ window-filled building and therefore in the industry as a whole. Sulzberger–perhaps inadvertantly–sent a message about the way a female reporter and editor is expected to conduct herself and the dangers she’ll face is she dares to be, like many of her predecessors,  pushy and forceful.  And it doesn’t look like progress.

 

Three Generations Strong

It’s been a while since I wrote here. (The last post was actually written in August). This summer has been monumental. I graduated the Kennedy School. I got a new job in a new field. My grandmother died.

My grandmother, the woman I hope to emulate, died at age 91. My grandmother, born two years after the 19th amendment was ratified, saw the world change in ways I can only begin to imagine. At 16, she went to work to help support her family after her father was killed in an accident. At 22, she travelled from Brooklyn to Temple, Texas to marry my grandfather, who was stationed at an army base there. During WWII, she worked for the military; I know from photos that at some point she sold war bonds, but I imagine she had a wide range of jobs.  When my mother, the youngest of two, was in elementary school, my grandmother went back to school and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. She taught reading until, as she told it, she could no longer climb the stairs at the school. Then she retired.

She loved fully and devotedly. She was , in all the good ways, the stereotype of a grandmother. She baked brownies, and showered us with gifts and kisses and love. She shepped nachas. She told me over and over again, “I just want you to be happy.” And she meant it.

For most of her 69 years of marriage, she served my grandfather dinner every day, making sure it was ready when he came home. Until she was too frail to serve. Then my grandfather served meals and became her caretaker. Even then, she wanted to help out with preparing for holiday meals, and was frustrated when she couldn’t. But she could still offer advice, and food, and love to everyone. And she did.

My Grandma Miriam was a  woman of her era and of every era she lived through. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: I miss her terribly.

*  *  *

Today, I was in the  LOFT dressing room staring at myself in the large shared mirror, trying to evaluate a suit. A woman holding her granddaughter–a tiny baby wrapped in a pink blanket–looked on. “That’s a nice suit,” she said.  Do you wear suits to work?”

“I think so. I haven’t started the job yet.”

“That’s the kind of suit that the young women wear in my office,” she said. “I’m a corporate attorney.” We talked about suit jacket options, and she congratulated me on getting a job.

“She’s beautiful,” I said, motioning to the baby. How old is she?”

“One week. My daughter needed new jeans.”

On cue, her daughter came out for an opinion on a pair of jeans.

“Can  I ask you something else? Is this shirt is too low?” I asked the grandmother. It wasn’t.

“I would wear that to work, and I’m a corporate executive,” the daughter said.

I changed back into my own clothes, and congratulated the women on the baby. They congratulated me on the job. I bought the suit, shirt and all.

*  *   *

As far as I remember, I never went clothes shopping with my grandmother. Maybe I did, when I was a tiny baby wrapped in pink and my mother needed a new pair of pants.

The last time I visited my grandmother in her house, I came bearing a brand new dress that I planned to wear to my graduation. I modeled it for her and got her approval. She told me I looked good in it and that it wasn’t too short. “That’s how you know it really looks good,” my sister said. “Grandma would never tell you it looked good if it didn’t.” True.

As I write out today’s dressing-room conversation, it seems utterly mundane, but I think that’s why it thrilled me: the normality of the high-powered women, the way they were willing to offer fashion advice, which really was also career advice. The tiny, third-generation strong woman resting in her grandmother’s arms, still completely unaware of the blessings of the strong women that came before her. The blessings I am so lucky to have.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 1.18.35 AM

My mother, me, and my grandmother.

The Year of the Woman?

The cover of the Atlantic issue featuring Slaughter’s article

Malala Yousafzai. Image via the New York Time’s Adam Ellick’s short documentary about her last week in school

There is a narrative to be woven about 2012 being the year of conversation about women–really important conversation, despite  evidence that there is still so much going horribly wrong.

In the media arena, there was  Anne Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” Atlantic article, and the movie Brave, for starters. (The movie is getting slammed as a disappointment in the year-in-review list-icles, but its messages about women’s strengths in diplomacy and more generally its “you go girl” vibe were clear and important). In the political arena, it was the year when a female Michigan legislator was banned from the State House floor for saying “vagina,” when Congress debated birth-control legislation, and when both parties tried to court the female vote in the presidential election (then there was the “binders full of women” comment, the meme, and the much more interesting discussion about hiring practices).  And that’s just what comes to mind right now.

Much of the conversation was enlightening and exciting (though I was surprised to see the number of people who appeared to have read only half of Slaughter’s article; reacting to the “can’t have it all” part but not to the solutions she suggested in the second half of the article). It’s easy to sit in the Ivory Tower and have lofty conversations about the issues, to get excited about the record number of women sworn in to the Senate and talk about how to keep that number rising. But the conversation seems so futile and disconnected from the world at large.

A record number of women in the Senate seems like a marginal accomplishment when a girl is shot by the Taliban for daring to advocate that she be allowed to attend school, when a woman in India is gang raped and left to die, when the women who want to protest in response to the crime are afraid of being groped. 

It was a smaller thing that reminded me of the differing levels of conversations about women (click image below to enlarge).

Photo from MissRepresentation Facebook page, captioned as "The 113th Congress, officially sworn in today, is the most diverse in American history - including a record-breaking number of women."

Luckily, we have capacity to have conversations about tragedies and accomplishments; to push for progress in ensuring safety of women all around the world while also pushing for the ( not entirely unrelated) election of more women. But conversations like the one that was had  on this (public) Facebook wall, reminds me that while we are having those conversations, while Biden points out a record number that is far from a representative number of Senators, we also still need to go back to the basics, to talking about WHY women should be serving in elected office. This David guy (whose post will get way more reads on Facebook than on this blog, so I don’t feel any concern about leaving up his name) might be a troll, and I know, I know. Don’t feed them. This is a snapshot of an online conversation about one issue–women in office–and doesn’t touch on the other issues at all. I don’t know any of the people in the snapshot, and I don’t know their views outside of what they expressed here.

Still, I can’t believe that this is still a conversation, let alone believe that in the 21st century, women’s safety is still so fragile.

Here’s to more conversation, and more progress, in 2013.