Toxic Masculinity & the Power of ME TOO

The latest tsunami to hit us is a cultural disaster rather than a natural one. I’m talking about the huge tidal waves of grief and anger pouring out on Facebook pages, mostly from women, expressed in two telling words: ME TOO.

I don’t know who struck the spark that set off this conflagration (to mix water and fire metaphors, deliberately), posting the very first “ME TOO—Pass it On” on Facebook, but it is running like a California wildfire—out of control, slightly hysterical, as women who may never before have publicly admitted the shame of having been molested, assaulted, or harassed now begin to proclaim it loudly, in ALL CAPS.

As thousands of women join this mega-virtual Take Back the Night rally, you can see those virtual men looking at each other uneasily, beginning to post “Not Me,” in so many words, on their FB pages.

Harvey Weinstein, yes; Donald Trump, yes; Bill Cosby, yes; Bill O’Reilly, yes; Casey Affleck, yes…yes, yes, yes…so many OTHER men routinely disrespect and prey on women. Not me.

Although this dialogue may be new to many, it’s been going on in the fringes of our culture, in the women’s & gender studies circles where I hang out, for a long time.

A few brave men have dared to stand up to the culture of silence (from entitled men) and shame (from fearful, self-blaming women) and say, loud and clear, that MEN need to own the issue of violence against women and children, and clean up their acts collectively.

If women could solve the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault on our own, we would have done it by now.

The majority of men do not perpetrate the violence, yet by looking away from it, they condone it.

That has been the message of men like Michael Kimmel, Jackson Katz and Robert Jensen over many years now. Men need to stand up and reject the toxic masculinity that glorifies aggression, hardness and lack of emotion, affirming instead a positive masculinity that uses its power to protect and embraces its nurturing, loving characteristics.

Boys do cry, as well they should. And men should be crying now too, as they bear witness to the magnitude of the violence that their female friends, partners, daughters, sisters and mothers have had to silently absorb.

Women, brava to us for standing up in this virtual “women’s march” on social media. Now let’s make it real in our lives.

In my memoir and on my Transition Times blog, I’ve been arguing that we must “align the personal, political and planetary” to heal ourselves, our society and our world.

It’s plain to see that in our time, this bleak 21st century, violence against individuals is replicated by political violence against groups and massive violence against in the planet. And let’s be honest: in every realm, most of the violence is perpetrated by men—against people of all genders.

elemental-journey-cover-new-smIt does not have to be this way. Change must start with individuals—ME TOO—and then move out into the world. That’s why I have chosen purposeful memoir as my starting point for myself, and my offering to others.

I have a whole series of purposeful memoir workshops starting in December, and if you can’t wait that long, my new online course is available now.

Unpack those two little words. Tell the stories that go with them. And then move the fierce energy you will release in the telling out into the political and planetary spheres.

When we align the personal, political and planetary, we bring balance to ourselves, our communities and our world. And then…watch us rise!

Telling Senator Warren to Shut Up? Hell No! When They Go Low, We Will Too

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The maelstrom over Mitch McConnell’s insulting “shutting up” of Senator Elizabeth Warren has provoked some thoughtful commentary on how very typical it is for women to be silenced in majority-male environments.

“The unpalatable truth is that women encounter this behavior in most professions,” writes Susan Chira in The New York Times. “It often comes from well-intentioned men who are horrified when it is pointed out or oblivious when it is going on, as well as those who are less enlightened.”

I have encountered this kind of behavior many times in my own profession. For example, one man who I’m sure would think of himself as “enlightened,” recently stormed out of a meeting in a rage after a woman colleague, tired of listening to him hold forth interminably, dared to interrupt him in order to insert a thought of her own.

Yes, women still struggle to get a word in edgewise, not only because of the behavior and expectations of others, but also because of our own internalized socialization, which enjoins us to be polite, wait our turn, speak only when we’re very sure of the value of what we have to say.

In the wake of the Women’s March on Washington and all the solidarity marches around the country and around the world…in the wake of the Drumpf administration’s retrograde and quite open attack on women’s rights…in view of the extreme seriousness of our historical moment…

IT IS CLEAR THAT WOMEN CAN NO LONGER AFFORD TO BE QUIET.

For many of us, the idea of speaking up in a meeting or a crowd can be frightening. We may not think of ourselves as community leaders, or want to step outside the comfort zones of our carefully defined personal and professional lives.

But these are not ordinary times.

We stand on the precipice of a future that may well be more cataclysmic as anything the 20th century threw at us.

We are told that Bannon, the evil genius behind the throne of the orange man, is eager to foment World War III. Through his golem, DT, he is provoking and needling our allies, sometimes by making friends with common enemies like Russia; he is weaseling his way into the Vatican and trying to stir up dissension among the Cardinals under the current peaceful, green-minded Pope; he is going out of his way to exacerbate the climate change problem by putting the full weight of the presidency behind fossil fuel extraction and distribution, the hell with environmental impacts.

A new “axis of evil” is being laid out for us, the conditions for war made artificially inexorable, just as they were in 2001 when Bush & Co. lied to America and threw us into the needless Iraq war.

I stand for reproductive rights just as much as the next woman, but American women, I’m telling you, we have even bigger battles to fight right now.

Women’s rights are human rights; critical issues of economics, geopolitics and environment are women’s issues; women need to be seen and heard—loudly, nastily, stubbornly—on every issue of concern to our nation and the world today.

Mitch McConnell is going to find that while he may have silenced U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren on one evening, there are going to be dozens, if not hundreds and thousands of women standing up to take her place. Thought we may not be welcome in the august chambers of Congress, we can barrage members by phone, email, snail mail and social media to make our voices heard.

170121211838-28-womens-march-dc-super-169.jpg

We can and must work in our communities to plan the ousting of the idiots in the 2018 elections, when every single House seat will be up for grabs, along with a good number of Senate seats and governorships.

We have to get used to the idea that the Repugs will play dirty, and be willing to fight fire with fire. No more “when they go low we go high.” When they go low, we have to go low too, in the interests of winning!

Women, especially white women, are a key demographic in upcoming elections. Progressive white women need to reach out to the 53% of white women who voted for Drumpf and find out why. What did they see in the slimeball–I mean, the guy? Are we seeing some sad version of Stockholm syndrome here?

This is a time for coalitions across all kinds of borders. We can win the battle for our country and our future, but only if we put aside perceived differences and focus on what unites us.

I am remembering “Me and Bobby McGee,” the Janis Joplin song from the 60s, with the refrain “Freedom’s just another name for nothing left to lose.”

American progressives, we don’t have much to lose now. We have everything—EVERYTHING—to win. Let’s get out there and WIN THIS!!

 

Useful organizing links:

Indivisible Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda

Women’s March on Washington Next Step: Huddles

People’s Climate March on Washington, April 29, 2017

General strikes, including “A Day Without Women”

Guide to the Anti-Trump Movements

The Epic Stakes of the 2016 Presidential Election—Electing Clinton is Just the Beginning

Yes, it’s exciting—thrilling, even—to see a female-bodied person finally heading the ticket for the Democratic Party. Yes, it’s historic that a woman will be President of the United States. And yes, when we are shown footage of the original Hillary, the idealistic young college student, the hardworking young lawyer/mom, we can see shadows of the woman we’d like to elect.

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But to contrast that earlier Hillary with the image of the tough-as-nails politician she has become is to understand why it’s so hard for women to succeed in the American political landscape—or the corporate workplace, for that matter. You have to learn the fine art of being a fe-male, a man in the guise of a woman.

unknownWhile outwardly conforming to the dominant beauty standards for women—dyed and coiffed hair, generous make-up, body-flattering clothing, heels—you also have to be commanding and aggressive, a no-nonsense sort of leader that everyone will automatically respect.

It’s no accident that our first woman president will be a woman in her golden years. Only when a woman has outlived the possibility of being a sex symbol can she command the necessary authority, with men and women alike, to hold the highest office in the land.

How many women have the stamina—to use a buzzword from the campaign trail—to stay the course over years of trials and hurdles, all the while walking the tightrope of being simultaneously attractive and authoritative?

Donald Trump, bless him, has brought right out into the open the everyday harassment that women have to deal with. Who is unluckier: the attractive woman who gets constantly groped and ogled, admired for her body while her ideas and smarts are ignored; or the unattractive woman who is ignored on both the bodily and mental planes, if not actively booed and hissed from the public arena?

gettyimages-613703308-0Trump is like a stand-in for every boorish man who ever held power in America, whether a boss or a husband, a rich client or a random stalker on the street. Men like Trump elevate their own fragile egos by putting down others, with women being a convenient, always-in-view set of targets.

Hillary has shown us just where to aim our defensive kicks, but she is also evidence of the toll this type of psychological warfare takes on a woman. She’s damned if she “acts like a man” and also damned if she’s “too womanly.” She basically has to become as genderless as possible, and we see that in her carefully chosen suits, cropped but coiffed hair, and in the cold tautness of her heavily made-up face.

I hope that when Hillary gets into the Oval Office, she will not pull up the drawbridge behind her, but will make every effort to use her power to make things better for the girls and women coming along behind her.

Women should not have to give up their femininity to become powerful. Men shouldn’t either! When are we going to understand that gender is a continuum, not a binary; that all humans have estrogen and testosterone running through them in different measures; that every human has the capacity to be both tender and tough, sensitive and aggressive?

29906170001_4818348677001_capturePerhaps that was part of what I admired so much about Bernie Sanders—his easiness with being nurturing and warm, even cuddly, on the campaign trail. No doubt this gentleness comes easier for men as they age and no longer have to prove themselves through aggression.

My dream is that it won’t have to take so long for women like Hillary and men like Bernie to be accepted in the American public sphere.

My dream is that our society will shift away from cheering on the superficial, cartoonish values represented by the Donald Trumps among us, and get back in touch with what really matters: living in right relationship—that is, in respect and caring—for every person, no matter what they look like.

And of course, my dream goes beyond this re-valuing of human rights to encompass the rights of every living being on the planet.

jb-solstic-mountaintop-copyWhenever I turn away from the glare of the brightly lit television screens and stage sets of our political moment, back to the green and gold of the forest, I am reminded of what really matters. The water protectors at Standing Rock know it; the Treesisters know it; the Bioneers know it; the Buddhists know it. Human beings have not evolved on this planet to rape and pillage and turn the green to dust. With our unique intelligence and capacity to understand time—history as well as prophecy—we are here to be the wise stewards of the planet, to nurture and protect the complexity of the ecological web that nourishes us.

I can’t say I trust Hillary Clinton to understand or undertake this role. She is a 20th century woman, still living out a 20th century drama of war and destruction. That is why we will have to follow Senator Sanders’ model in creating a drama of our own, too big and urgent for her and her business cronies to ignore. Mother Earth will do her part—we can see it already in the constant litany of storms and floods, wildfires and searing heat.

If we humans fail in our evolutionary mission of stewardship, the Earth will simply start over, as she has many times in the past. It’s time to do everything we can, each one of us, to head off that epic fail—starting with defeating Trump and installing Clinton.

And then we will continue stubbornly, with determination and love, the great work of transforming our society into one based on a new fundamental watchword: no, not freedom this time.

For the 21st century and beyond, our core value must be RESPECT.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: A Big Tent for Honoring and Encouraging Women’s Creative Voices

Stockbridge, MA.  Photo J. Browdy 2015

Stockbridge, MA. Photo J. Browdy 2015

We’re still in the deep-freeze here in the Berkshires weather-wise, but the bright sunshine is telling us that underneath the ice and snow the buds and shoots of spring are stirring.

And we creative women of the Berkshires are stirring too, as we launch ourselves today into the big beautiful Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, the biggest celebration of Women’s History Month happening under one banner anywhere in the U.S.A.

Do you know of any other grassroots Festival that spreads itself out across the whole month of March, with an event celebrating women’s creative expression and unique perspectives every single day from March 1 – 31?

We can do it here in the Berkshires because of the generous talent of our creative women, who are willing to step up and out into the spotlight to share who they are and what they know with our appreciative audiences; and because of the generosity of our sponsors and donors, who know that when more women and girls share their ideas and talents in the public sphere, the whole community benefits.

Mary Pipher used the figure of Shakespeare’s Ophelia to describe the loss of confidence and self-esteem that can often undermine teenage girls, just as teen boys are becoming louder and more self-confident. More recently, research has shown that while many boys have a socially reinforced tendency to take risks, many girls tend to keep their hands down, literally and figuratively, unless they’re absolutely sure they have the right answer.

This means that teen girls and young adults often have less practice in taking the risk of speaking out in public settings, and over time, they tend to fall into the habit of observing rather than participating, following rather than taking the lead.

I know, because I was that girl. As a child, my mother describes me as being a chatterbox who loved to show off my knowledge—for example, I had an encyclopedic knowledge of the names of local birds and flowers, which were taught to me by my grandmother, a biologist and nature lover. I could rattle off the names and characteristics of a hundred birds, and I knew where to find dozens of different native plants that grew in the woods and fields around our home.

JB at 15But that generous volubility did not accompany me out of childhood. As a teenager I was the girl who got an A on every paper, but almost never spoke in class. When I did take the risk to speak, I was overcome with a fear that set my voice trembling and a flush rising uncomfortably to my face. It was much easier to just stay silent.

It took me many years of forcing myself, as an adult, to step into the spotlight to teach, give presentations and lead community groups, before that unwarranted stage fright dissipated. For many other women, who don’t have opportunities in their professional life to speak up, the habit of silence and hanging back persists.

I would like to believe that with more and more women entering the workforce and doing well in their careers, this gender imbalance is fading, but I know that’s not yet true. Even the fabulously successful Sheryl Sandberg is aware of how important it is that women and girls are encouraged to take the risk of speaking their minds, and to do so with poise and confidence.

That is my underlying goal with organizing the big Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: to open up multiple opportunities for women and girls in my home community to inspire each other and their audiences with their creative voices, in order to build a momentum that will continue to grow and develop year-round, flowing out into our communities in ways that we can’t entirely predict.

Amber Chand performing her one-woman show, "Searching for the Moon: A Heroine's Journey" in a BFWW event

Amber Chand performing her one-woman show, “Searching for the Moon: A Heroine’s Journey” in a BFWW event

Men and women may be equal, in theory at least, but we are not the same. We have different sensibilities, born of our different biological composition and our different experiences—differences that should be celebrated and honored.

I am looking forward to a joyful month of celebrating women’s creativity in the Berkshires with many friends, neighbors and visitors. The momentum we build, event by event, will send us soaring into our much-anticipated springtime.

Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.

 ***

Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?

 ***

So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.

 ***

There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

Bypassing the Old Boys’ Club

As we move exuberantly into the second half of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, my mind is sparkling with memories of the powerful, indeed heart-stopping moments that have already taken place at Festival events this season.

DSCN4609Grace Rossman extending a powerful poetic hand to the drowning Ophelia in so many girls today; Ruth Sanabria impersonating both her mother and the fascist regime that unjustly imprisoned her in a fierce poem about the impossibility of stamping out the love between mother and daughter; Kate Abbott celebrating the cultural diversity of the Berkshire hills as she works quietly and steadily to make it more visible; Barbara Bonner eloquently describing the spirit of generosity that seeks and needs no recompense.

The list could go on, and it will, as the Festival continues to unfold day by day this month, and throughout the year in the on-going readings, workshops and writers’ circles that will be taking place under the Festival banner.

This is important work we’re doing together at the Festival—creating multiple entry points and platforms for women writers to step into the spotlight and shine.

The truth is, such opportunities are still all too rare for women writers, and creative women more generally.

Overall17-316x173At the end of February, just in time for Women’s History Month, the non-profit, all-volunteer group VIDA published its annual Count, revealing the continuing disparity between men’s and women’s voices in literary and upscale magazines and journals.

Overall14-316x173I invite you to take a look for yourself: the results show clearly that in literary circles (think The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The Atlantic, the London Review of Books, The Nation and the New York Review of Books), the old boys’ club is alive, well and holding steady at an average of 75% male voices represented in their pages over the past year.

The same is true in the film industry, the theater industry, and in the television industry. 

It’s the same in book publishing, which may be one reason why women are so interested in exploring new opportunities for self-publishing and self-promotion.

publishing_quadrant1222These days in publishing, it’s like the Berlin wall coming down—gates thought to be invincible are simply crumbling away, with their keepers revealed in all their flabby ordinariness.

Having spent far too much of my life not even trying to take myself seriously as a writer because I knew exactly how high the odds were stacked against my success, I’m excited about the DIY spirit of the new publishing landscape.

I’ve got a book that’s almost ready to launch, and buoyed by the lively, can-do spirit of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I’m thinking seriously about bypassing the old boys’ club entirely and taking responsibility myself for getting my words out into the world.

No more sitting on the sidelines complaining that “they won’t let us in!”  No more waiting to be asked to dance.  No more hiding my light for fear it won’t be appreciated.

BFWW-square-logo-2014If all of us women started supporting each other and working collaboratively to create the opportunities we all need to shine, we could change the creative cultural landscape for the better, turning those red and blue pie charts a lovely shade of purple.

What a beautiful world it would be!

Daring to imagine a brave new post-patriarchal world

When was the last time you uttered the dreaded P-Word?

Patriarchy, that is.

Somehow the word itself comes out sounding like a challenge, even when it’s not meant as one.  Calling attention to the fact that men still rule the world is considered poor taste.

Women who dare to use the P-word in conversation run the risk of being labeled as strident femi-nazi ballbusters, resentful unfortunates to be avoided if at all possible.

Am I exaggerating?  I don’t think so!

What happens when we all agree to participate in the collective delusion that gender equality has been achieved?  Who loses and who gains?  What opportunities are lost and forfeited?

I’m tired of living in a society that calls strong men “leaders” and strong women “bossy.”

I want to encourage more girls and women to step into leadership roles in every public arena, and be applauded for it by both men and women.

I want to see all leaders supported by excellent child care, fabulous schools and reasonable flex time at work.

When women and men take time off to focus on their families, I want to see that time recognized as valuable—indeed, essential—to maintaining a healthy society, and rewarded by Social Security accrual down the road in retirement.

Last week I spent time with two young mother-writers who came to present their work at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.  Both spoke of how hard it is to keep their professional lives going strong while also nurturing their families.  I certainly remember that struggle myself, and it’s not all in the past tense!

Hillary Rodham Clinton, late bloomer?

Hillary Rodham Clinton, late bloomer?

Is there any wonder that women are so often late bloomers when it comes to our professions?

But actually, let’s do away with the term “late bloomer” too, at least when it comes to women who do what makes perfect sense: focus on their families during their 20s and 30s, and get back to their careers when the childcare pressures ease up.

Those women have been blooming all along, or at least they would be if they lived in a society that supported and applauded their efforts, and encouraged men to share the burden of housework and childcare equally.

The patriarchy locked women in the domestic sphere for many long centuries, while devaluing “women’s work” as lower-paid and lower-status.

It’s time for us to celebrate women’s work as essential and invaluable, while also insisting that the whole category of “women’s work” has to be dismantled. We don’t need a gendered division of labor anymore, in the public or the private spheres.

What we need are strong, capable leaders to step up and help us evolve quickly into the resilient, collaborative, respectful human society we know we can be.

Bringing home the bacon and frying it up too: homage to mother-work

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

The theme of last Saturday’s opening night event at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others, was “What do mothers make?”

The answers provided by the evening’s presenters–all women at various stages of their lives–were various, but there was a common theme: mothers make families, mothers make relationships, mothers make community.

Historically, in most societies this has been the primary role given to women—to serve as the emotional heart of families, to make the meals and make the homes that lead to strong, centered communities.

These days, in American society at least, women are expected to do all this and also be successful in their professional lives.  Only the wealthiest American families can afford to have a stay-at-home parent.

In most households I know, especially among people at mid-life or younger, both parents are working hard at their jobs and also trying to sustain a healthy home life.  And in most families I know, it still falls disproportionately to women to keep those home fires banked and burning bright.

We live in a society that measures personal success by income, but puts no monetary value on homemaking, parenting and elder care.

So all those hours that women put in to keeping our families and communities strong and healthy “don’t count.”  The nation sends a pretty clear message through our Social Security retirement system, for example, telling parents and caregivers that the work we do in our homes is an unacknowledged and unrewarded second shift.

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, "What do mothers make?"

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, “What do mothers make?”

A recent Pew study showed that 40% of all American households with children under 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary breadwinners for the family.  These women are bringing home the bacon and frying it up for their families—and arranging childcare, helping with homework, and doing all the regular home maintenance too, after their “work day” is done.

And then we wonder why so many children and teenagers are struggling with mental health, including ADD, eating disorders, addictions of all kinds, depression and lack of motivation.  We wonder why women are still not gaining equal representation at the highest levels of politics and business.  We wonder why so many women step off the leadership track in their thirties, when the mothering pressure is greatest, or “opt” to choose career paths that give them some precious flex-time.

It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at a society that squeezes everything it can out of mothers as workers and doesn’t recognize or value parenting and homemaking as the essential work it is.  Is this really the kind of society we want to call home?

I end with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Aurora Levins Morales:

“Ours was the work they decided to call unwork.”

Passionate Selfies

Why is it that girls are still being encouraged to take up less space, while boys are encouraged to bulk themselves up?

In my gender studies courses at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, we inevitably spend a fair amount of time talking about the insidious influence of the media on both girls’ and boys’ self-image.

Girls receive the message that the ideal girl is thin and pale, with long blonde hair and big blue eyes.  She’s sexy but not threatening—if she’s smart, she doesn’t flaunt it the way she does her big boobs and shapely legs.

Boys, on the other hand, are rewarded for being assertive and athletic.  It’s a good thing if they take up a lot of space in the room as well as a lot of airtime in any social context.

It is no coincidence that girls are disproportionately affected by eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia—psycho-somatic illnesses marked by a distortion of one’s self-image and a manic desire to become smaller.

Girls with these eating disorders imagine themselves to be fat, a horrible three-letter word, no matter how waif-thin they starve themselves into becoming.  Bulimics binge-eat and then purge, vomiting up their meal before it can be converted to the dreaded fat on their bodies.

Anorexics just starve themselves, and often add demanding exercise regimens to the mix to make good and sure they won’t be fat.

Meanwhile, boys abuse protein powders loaded with steroids to make themselves bigger and more muscular.

Yesterday I went to see a screening of the new short film “Selfie,” made right here in Great Barrington MA by filmmaker Cynthia Wade and photographer Michael Crook, who spent a week in our local high school talking about body image and self esteem with teenage girls.

Unknown-3The girls were encouraged to take “selfies” (ie, smart-phone pictures) of themselves, daring to focus in on the parts of their faces that they liked the least.

One girl complained of the roundness of her face, another of her bushy hair, another of her red cheeks, another of her prominent nose.

But through guided discussions about body image and beauty, and the process of creating a photo show of their “selfies” and video-taped interviews of themselves and their mothers for the film, they were made more aware of how superficial it is to obsess over the places where their own human faces fall short of the air-brushed ideal.

Obviously many agree, since the film is in the process of going viral on You-Tube, with nearly a million views in the past few weeks.  The 3-minute version is up to nearly 5 million views!

Unknown-4Beauty is so much more than what we can see, the girls and the film audience concluded.  It is not about conforming to some pre-established, often totally unrealistic ideal.  How boring would it be if every girl looked like Barbie, and every boy looked like Ken?

Yesterday’s New York Times discussed the “Selfie” film, along with a new trend among adolescent girls to share “uglies,” that is, selfies that are deliberately staged to portray the self-photographer as “ugly.”

The Times seemed to think this was an advance—that girls who were unafraid to show themselves making “ugly faces” into the camera were more liberated, less browbeaten by media stereotypes.

To me, a much more profound advance would be represented by girls whose “selfies” were not about their physical appearance at all.

What if women and girls channeled all that nervous energy over how we look into our work in the world instead?

Following the screening of “Selfies,” Berkshire International Film Festival Director Kelley Vickery presented the short film SEPIDEH, which created quite a buzz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.  Made by Danish director Berit Madsen, the film is a documentary that follows the life of the titular teenager, an Iranian girl who grows from a young girl obsessed with Albert Einstein into a woman engaged to be married and heading to university to study astronomy.

Unknown-2In the film, Sepideh wears a hijab and no make-up.  She’s much more interested in studying and star-gazing than in making herself attractive in conformity with some pre-established ideal.

Her passion for learning and her determination to achieve her goals are paramount.  And in the end, these shining characteristics succeed in attracting to her a suitor who has every intention of helping her become the outstanding woman she is meant to be.

So should it be for every young woman.  Teenage girls should be focused on zeroing in on their passions, defining their goals, and going after them.

What could be more beautiful than a girl who knows what she wants, is fully ignited with a sense of purpose, and is pursuing her dreams at full tilt?

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