Lunchtable TV talk: Mrs America – Beginning to see the light

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A decade and a half ago, when I hastily enrolled in an MA in gender studies program, I didn’t get very far because I wasn’t entirely convinced that the discipline was right for me. But I also wondered, foolishly, “Why do we need this discipline?” Although at that point I had done a lot of things in many different places in the world, my own life was untouched by the issues core to the equal rights cause. Or so I naively thought. First of all, it’s folly to think that the fight is ever over. It’s an ongoing tug-of-war, demanding vigilance. Secondly, it isn’t a fight only about me (duh). It’s a fight to maintain and build on what women who came before fought for and won, and a fight to gain ground — both in the fights that have yet to be won (equal pay, guaranteed rights to reproductive freedom, which are always in jeopardy, etc.) and in elevating the needs and voices of all women. Previous generations of feminism focused on white (and often heterosexual, middle class) women, ignoring or outright excluding women of color and trans women — completely failing to embrace intersectional feminism. In maintaining a narrow framework for gender equality, the movement has harmed and held back all women, doing the most damage to those ignored by this narrow focus.

As far back as the 1960s and 70s, the roots of this divide were obvious; its lack of inclusion, to some extent, paved the way for the defeats the movement suffered and provided a generous opening for more regressive and conservative forces in the form of anti-feminist backlash, ERA opposition and the right-wing hypocrisy of people like Phyllis Schlafly.  Following the turbulence of the 60s and 70s, Schlafly and co were quietly active, poised to ride the great conservative wave that characterized the 1980s, ‘defending’ the family, “traditional values” and a woman’s place in the home. I came to realize that my own dismissal of and indifference to gender studies and feminist theory parallels the careless and selfish approach Schlafly took to feminism, i.e. if it didn’t affect her, it was not a concern. (Never mind that it’s a fallacy to claim that these issues affected neither of us.)

In the recent TV production, Mrs America, which depicts the fight for, and ultimate defeat of, the Equal Rights Amendment, we’re introduced to Schlafly — an educated married mother — who ends up crusading against the ERA and growing an organization of other conservatives who supported her aims. Probably more interested in national defense and arms control policy, Schlafly’s first passion doesn’t seem to have been opposing women’s rights; she had hoped to be an active adviser on defense issues but was never appointed to the kinds of positions she sought.

Her ambitions, if not ironic, at least demonstrate her position of privilege: even if she left the home to campaign and left child rearing to hired help, she still claimed to “have it all”, demonizing women who didn’t aspire to do the same (that is, she espoused the primacy of family and home — and the freedom to work if time and husband permitted it). Her myopia failed to account for the myriad situations in which women — even those of her own conservative persuasion — found themselves. Why, after all, should a woman take a job from a man, or need a salary equivalent to a man, when she should be relying on a husband to provide? (Unless of course, like Schlafly, one considered herself uniquely qualified.) As Mrs America deftly portrayed: many of the women in Schlafly’s organization were struggling with abusive spouses, fear and self-doubt and an ambivalence toward the all-or-nothing interpretation of women’s equality. How would, or could, Schlafly’s worldview allow for  these differences?

Admittedly, this was my problematic thinking, too, which I’ve spent years working to undo. As humans, we’re often short-sighted and blinded by our own experiences and surroundings (as well as by those we do not have or have not seen). It makes us too comfortable and too ready to insist that if I don’t see it, it isn’t happening. It’s not as simple as that; I never claimed that women were not struggling or facing inequality. Yet I didn’t perceive that I experienced it — and this was both self-centered and wrong. I did experience it, but I was so indoctrinated into the norms of an unequal society that I didn’t see it clearly. Despite how sensitive I had considered myself to be, the feminist struggle — and feminist theory — felt superfluous. When I realized this bias, it became a mission to understand and empathize with the lived experiences and struggles of others and see the world and its challenges through those lenses in addition to my own. What a different world it is when seen this way. This is reason one why gender and feminist studies are essential: we must see beyond ourselves and build a community of action to move forward. We can’t do this if we don’t understand the history and what’s at stake for everyone — not just ourselves.

In Mrs America, I saw parallels to the 2016 presidential election and the Democratic Convention. The electric exuberance and humanity of the Hillary supporters created this false idea that passion and appearance would carry the day, and right up until the announcement of Trump’s victory, everyone was convinced Hillary Clinton would win in landslide to become America’s first female president. We all know what happened. Mrs America showed this kind of hubris in the feminist group, which underestimated both Schlafly and the mood of the American people. Ratifying the ERA seemed like a no-brainer, but the overconfidence bias gets us time and again. Passion does not make one’s desired outcome inevitable, particularly when one side has dismissed the other as unthinkable. In the US today, heading into the 2020 election, we’re in a similar place: it does affect us all, even the people who are mostly untouched by the daily disasters of the Trump administration.

Mrs America (and Cate Blanchett‘s outstanding performance) managed to humanize Schlafly and even show her hypocrisy as personal struggle without making her likeable. It also gave voice to many of second-wave feminism’s leaders, such as Betty Friedan (a fantastic Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Gloria Steinem (a surprisingly effective Rose Byrne), and Shirley Chisholm (superb turn by Uzo Aduba), whose names and work I’m very familiar with but was shocked to find that the vast majority of people I meet, both my age and younger, have never heard of these women unless engaged in feminist studies. This is the second reason gender and feminist studies are desperately needed. This history and these names are not well-known enough outside of small academic and movement-related circles, and we can see how quickly rights gained can be threatened or stripped away, particularly in volatile social and political times.

The most remarkable achievement of Mrs America is in showing the journey of Sarah Paulson‘s character, Alice, a Schlafly friend and ardent supporter, who begins to see some of the hypocrisy and near the end of the series meets a number of the women on the pro-ERA side. Wandering through their “camp”, she is treated respectfully, kindly — she is surprised by the women’s humanity. She is also surprised, after belting out a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land“, to learn the origins of the song:

Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash): “You were up there belting out a Marxist song.”

Alice: “No it isn’t. It’s patriotic.”

Flo: “Exactly.”

Alice also realizes that she has been living in Schlafly’s shadow and in fear… While both sides claim to have advocated for a kind of choice (pro-ERA for total equality and anti-ERA for letting women retain their “rightful place as protected homemaker”), it becomes clear that the latter does not account or advocate for women who do not have the luxury of choice, and would offer them no options in making a decent living for themselves. Alice wakes up: she begins to find her voice, gets a job and revels in the fact that it was her choice — finally grasping that women’s experiences are not the universally white, middle-class, married, privileged scene she’s taken as the norm. No, in fact, the diversity of women’s experience necessitates having the freedom to choose.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

 

Holding court: Leveling the hiring playing field

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In my day, I have done a lot of freelance work in the fuzzy areas of human resources, recruiting, resume/CV editing and coaching. That’s involved a lot of digging into a whole host of things that are related but not central to hiring and candidate marketability. For example, employment law, discrimination and similar topics. This has tangentially led me to a lot of material about gender inequality.

Just today I stumbled onto an article about a job ad that was so ridiculous that it has gone global in its blatant sexism. It encourages women in particular to apply for the content writing/SEO management job because the incumbent will be required to fill in for the receptionist. There’s nothing wrong, as the article points out, with wanting to bring more women into the tech sphere (as most of the job duties described would do) – but the receptionist part is… well, insulting to everyone. (Discouraging, subtly or not, women from going into tech and scientific fields is not a unique phenomenon by any meansinspiring whole white papers on the subject. But it’s far from isolated to technology disciplines. It’s everywhere.)

Much has been made in recent years about the potential benefit to job candidates of “blind applications” in which only qualifications (stripped of any mention of gender, name or other identifying detail) are presented without the applicant’s name. (This is also true in a lot of cases for any group of people – studies have been done to find out whether “name blind” applications will reduce or eliminate racial/cultural discrimination). Anonymized applications, according to IZA World of Labor, will help level the playing field but cannot eliminate all forms of discrimination (what can? There are theories on this, too, such as implementing skills-based, gamified recruiting, competitions, etc. that can also strip away bias). It’s impossible to completely eliminate discrimination when, for example, the discrimination can just be moved to a later point in the hiring process or when contextual information that remains in an application can influence bias (e.g. graduation years/dates, for example. Age discrimination, too, is real).

When I wrote that discrimination is everywhere, and is rampant in technology, check out this article from Slate about the Nancy Lieberman. If you look only at the qualifications for a potential new NBA head coach, she is head and shoulders (forgive the lameness of using that term in relation to basketball) above the others in the list, particularly if you’ve removed all mention of timeframes, gender, etc. She is experienced and decorated. I imagine there are naysayers who won’t accept comparing “women’s sports” and “men’s sports” like for like, but that’s easily negated when you consider that many head coaches have never played professionally in ANY league.

“And while this shouldn’t need saying, it unfortunately does: There would be so many reasons beyond gender to pick Lieberman. She has been committed to the game of basketball for decades. Her passion for the game and ability to convey its nuances are a gift. Lieberman has probably forgotten more about basketball than some coaches will ever know. The award that is bestowed upon the nation’s top women’s collegiate point guard annually has her name on it.

The above blind résumés offer an objective look at why it is time for more women to get opportunities in all of professional sports—they belong there and would have a chance to help teams. The myth that an NBA head co ach had to actually have played in the NBA—one of the last arguments of opponents of female NBA coaches—has long ago been dispelled. Four of the above NBA assistant coaches never played in the NBA, and all are qualified to some degree or another for a head coaching job. Almost half of the current 30 head coaches in the NBA never played in a single game in the league. Two of those coaches—Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra—have won a combined seven NBA championships.

In today’s professional climate it has generally become accepted that an applicant for an open position will be judged on merit, experience, and ability to complete a job without facing discrimination based on race, gender, religious beliefs, or inclusion in any other protected class.”

 

Sexism, misogyny, racism and inequality in women’s sports

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The tension and irritation has been building up in me for a long time, even though I was unaware of its presence and imperceptible growth. I am not an athlete nor am I someone who has been vocally feminist for much of my life. I had a few conversations with former colleagues – women who were much older than me, who had been through some of the trials of being the only woman working in a completely male-dominated workplace (an air traffic control center). It’s not as though women are not expected somehow – still – to take notes and make the coffee, but back then it was not just understood but was blatantly stated as a requirement and not questioned. Fighting against these slights in daily work life has never been a conscious part of my life. But strides made by women who came before me paved the way for me not to have to think about such things (as well as the installation of automatic coffee machines!).

I believe wholeheartedly in equality for everyone – and I mean everyone – but when I undertook a master’s program in gender studies, the extremes of feminist theory put me off by being so anti-man. I have not personally suffered – to my knowledge – for being a woman, and I am sure that in some measure this is because I am a white woman who, in the Nordic countries where I live, blends into the scenery and enjoys the privilege that comes from so many different aspects of the accident of my birth and the conscious choice of where I live (which is another layer of privilege – having the choice to decide where to live and to go there).

Similarly Scandinavia conscientiously attempts to lead the way on matters of equality. It does not always succeed, sometimes tripping over itself trying to be “too fair” or politically correct and coming out looking foolish. But the thinking is in the right place. I also say that I have not “consciously” suffered because I don’t know that we are always aware of the things we are numb or indoctrinated to. While no man is outwardly making lewd remarks or insisting that I do something degrading or something that is anything other than equal to what he would do, there have probably been times that I was perceived or treated as “lesser than” because I am a woman. I have been blissfully ignorant to this, if and when it did happen, because my life has still been lived on my terms and has been relatively easy to boot.

Revealing this as my backdrop, I can’t really explain what incensed me and pushed me over the edge about sexism, misogyny and racism in women’s athletics. Not even looking at the flat-out stereotypes any longer (as though all women athletes must exist at caricature-like extremes, i.e. either women who appear as masculine, steroid-pumped sportsmen-lesbians from Cold War era East Germany or ultra-feminine, would-be fashion models who look cute in a short skirt). Either direction these stereotypes travel, they smack of objectification and are on display for the criticism and analysis of the world (and it’s not just men engaging in the bitterest criticism). Not because they are athletes in the public eye but because they are women.

We can see this dynamic quite publicly and visibly played out in the form of Bruce Jenner, former Olympic champion, who is now known as Caitlyn Jenner. As Bruce the athlete, no one would have questioned how he looked or would have sexualized his existence to the degree that all women athletes put up with today. And as Caitlyn, she is suddenly subject to this kind of scrutiny. Jon Stewart explained it best in a recent episode of The Daily Show. Now, suddenly, as a woman, Jenner’s worth is all tied up in her “fuckability” and her beauty.

This holds true for women athletes the world over. And when it is not explicitly about their bodies as objects, and how their bodies and fashion sense reflect on their character (!) or deservedness to win (!!) (e.g., when a Wimbledon winner (Marion Bartoli) is ripped to shreds because she is “too ugly and/or too fat” to win), it’s about the invisibility or lack of support for their sports. FIFA‘s (soon-to-be-former president) Sepp Blatter infamously remarked that women’s football might be more popular if they wore tighter/shorter shorts; Al Jazeera reported on the discrimination against female footballers in Brazil while The Atlantic reports that Brazil’s biggest male footballer makes 15 million USD a year, while its biggest female football star cannot find a team to play for. Al Jazeera and more recently John Oliver highlighted the sexist inequality of FIFA insisting that the women’s World Cup be played on artificial turf rather than grass.

All of this is frustrating but not quite the infuriating push I needed to get really angry. Instead, Serena Williams’s win at the French Open this weekend finally made me seethe with rage. Looking at her winning history, she is singularly the greatest female tennis player ever to play the game. Can she be recognized simply for these record-breaking achievements in athleticism and sporting victory? No.

No one is or has been (in recent memory) more susceptible to the powerful and ugly forces of sexism, misogyny, racism and inequality than Serena Williams.

If all female pro-athletes, particularly in a “demure” arena like tennis, are treated like sex objects who should be supermodels, what can we expect? And when the kind of racially charged, barely veiled racist language cues come into play on top of the sexism and objectifying, shouldn’t every woman be angry?

**Edited later to note that The Atlantic published a piece on French Open men’s champion, Stan Wawrinka, which states: “It’s that Wawrinka doesn’t look or comport himself like a Grand Slam champion. From his bright pink “pajama” shorts to his faintly dadboddish physique, the Swiss native looks more like someone you’d find at Home Depot than Roland Garros.” Finally someone jumps on what a man looks like and how he “comports” himself. Equality, right?