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.

Women Writing from the Heart: What the world needs now

This time tomorrow night I’ll be sharing, for the first time, a piece of the memoir I’ve been working on for a good three years now.

il_570xN.378782406_r41jI’ll be reading at a gathering I organized on behalf of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, called “Writing from the Heart.”  It features seven of us in all, each sharing a piece of writing that comes from the deep, sometimes aching, sometimes exuberant place at our core, which we rarely trot out and share in public settings.

I organized “Writing from the Heart” because I believe it is so important, now more than ever, for women to get over our social conditioning to “be nice,” “be polite,” “go with the flow,” and cede the floor.  It’s so important that we start expressing, loud and clear, the truths we hold inside us, which are often far from self-evident.

Each one of us has her own perspective on the world, her own experiences to share, her own passions and convictions.  I am less concerned with the content than with the character: what matters to me is that you say what is in your heart, and listen to the heartfelt ideas of others, and that out of this exchange we begin a dialogue on what’s important in this deep, rich, rarely mined terrain.

Let us be frank: although women have made great strides in the past century, we still live in a male-dominated world.

Old, masculinist stories of domination, penetration, exploitation and subordination still prevail over many of the world’s societies.

We live in a violent world on many levels, and the violence, whether against the natural world or against other human beings, is overwhelmingly committed by men.

Women have been forcibly kept out of the male-dominated public sphere in most societies, for much of human history.

We have been the ones bearing and raising the sons who go off to war.  We have been the ones keening and mourning over the coffins that return.  We have been the ones who have been silent while our daughters have been forced into marriages too young, or to men we knew would be abusive.  We have been the ones raising our grandchildren as best we could when our sons and daughters died of AIDS, or ended up in prison.  We have done the best we could with the tools and strengths we had available.

But this is a new time.  Without really realizing it, we have stepped over the threshold into an era that calls for an extraordinary effort on the part of women and men of good heart and far-reaching vision.

Women and men must work together to create new social, economic and environmental frameworks that will enable us to survive and even flourish in the brave new world of climate change that is now upon us.

Women, who have centuries of experience of nourishing, cultivating, collaborating, and surviving against all kinds of odds, have a special role to play in this new era.

Women need to teach these skills to men; and men need to share with us their warrior spirit.

In this new age, the feminine and the masculine must come together in the service of generations to come, each learning from the other and together becoming greater than they could ever be apart.

Every human being has both estrogen and testosterone coursing through hir system, and every human being is capable of both nurturing and violence.

Today, we need women to have the courage to defend the rights of future generations, both human and non-human, and we need men to stand with us in acknowledging that the age of masculine privilege and dominance has been terribly destructive, and must now come to an end.

This is what is in my heart on this 12th anniversary of 9/11, this 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup, this 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Tomorrow evening at this time, six other women will share writing that comes right from the depths of their hearts.  This sharing must become a great, passionate tide, an upwelling of feeling and action that will sweep us away into a better future.

Let it be so.

Challenging the culture of (white male) entitlement: Come on, Occupy, let’s do it!

I spent several hours today listening to a friend tell me, with much anger, sadness and frustration, the story of how her marriage of more than 20 years has crumbled.

Then I went up to see my son’s soccer game, and could not bring myself to say more than “hello” to my own ex-husband, who chose freedom and autonomy over his 25-year relationship with me, and the satisfaction of living in the same house as our children.

When I got home, I checked the Occupy Wall Street website and found a statement from the “sexual assault survivors team,” describing and condemning the recent attack on a female protester by a man who apparently already had a record of sexual assault.

I also got a blog post from a student in my gender studies class, about an organization called About Face, which strives to get viewers to question the fashion industry norm of presenting emaciated women as “beautiful.”

What connects these dots?

A culture in which men feel more interested in following their own selfish desires for personal fulfillment (aka, sexual fulfillment) than in upholding their roles as fathers and husbands.A society that makes it easy for them to choose this route: why struggle to please a demanding wife when you can have sex with someone else with no strings attached?

A society that tells women that the more pale, limp and weak-looking they appear, the more beautiful they are in the eyes of men.

A society where women have to be guarded, even at protests that supposedly entertain no gender disparity, because there could be sexual predators around any corner.

A society that makes it terribly difficult for women to find independent means to self-respect.

Too often, in previous revolutions, women have supported the movement but found that the men in charge were not willing to give women’s issues equal footing with class issues.

If the young men and women of the Occupy movements are serious about creating true social change, they must put the issue of entitlement squarely on the table.

Not just the entitlement of the 1%, but specifically male entitlement, and white entitlement.

We will not be able to bring a new social structure into being unless we hit these areas of privilege and entitlement head on.

And no, we are not substituting women’s empowerment for men’s.

We are after another world entirely, in which gender, class and race are not the arbiters of power.  In which power flows from the collective wisdom of the group, rather than top-down in hierarchical fashion.

The Occupy movements are on to this shift with the general assemblies and the consensual mode of decision-making.  Breaking with the gendered conditioning of Western society, which gives men all the power, all the time, is not going to be easy.  But if anyone could achieve it, it’s the young men and women of the Occupy movements.

I want to see these young people make this an explicit focus of their movements.  Because otherwise, on a certain level, it’s just business as usual, no matter if the masters of Goldman Sachs come out to lick your boots.

Change the disrespectful attitude of men towards women, and you REALLY change the world.

Let’s give it a try, and see what happens.  Things could not get much worse, and they could get a whole lot better if men and women worked together for the good of ALL.

The minefield of unearned privilege: tread carefully!

It was not surprising when in a discussion of privilege in class the other day, we spent more time talking about affirmative action in higher education than we did about, say, white or male privilege.

When I paused the conversation to point this out, some students suggested it might be due to their firsthand knowledge of the inequities of the affirmative action system.  Many in the room had conflicted feelings and ideas about the question of merit vs. need-based scholarships.  Why should a student who can afford to pay for college, they asked, be granted a scholarship on the basis of merit, thus denying a place and funds to a student who may be less well-prepared, but is far more needy?

One can argue these issues for a long time without coming anywhere near the deeper issues that lie buried under the surface, like mines just waiting to go off.

Why are white students more likely to be both better-prepared and less needy than students of color?

WHITE PRIVILEGE.  It’s the elephant in the room that no one really wants to deal with, because it doesn’t feel good to admit that if your skin is pinkish beige in color, it’s given you systematic unearned advantages your whole life long.

There are also students—generally white male–who will complain that women now get unfair preferential treatment in higher education admissions.  This may have been true a decade ago, but in fact what’s happened of late is that affirmative action for women has been so successful that now it is men, especially men of color but white men too, who are sought after by college recruiters.

Does this mean that MALE PRVILEGE is all over and done with?  Hell no.  Men still earn at least 20% more than women doing the same job, whether blue collar, white collar or CEO.  Women still have a tougher time rising to leadership positions, and are judged much more harshly if and when they do succeed.  Women still have disproportionate responsibility for keeping the home fires burning and the children taken care of, even when they’re happily married and earning the same as or more than their husbands.

Male privilege is alive and well—but no one really wants to talk about it, not even women.

At least at the college level, students seem more comfortable talking about HETEROSEXUAL PRIVILEGE than about race/class/gender privilege.  It seems trendy to be aware of how queer folk are bullied and discriminated against, and to be sympathetic about it.  But there’s a lot less sympathy when it comes to women who point to male privilege, or people of color pointing to white privilege, or poor folks pointing to elite privilege.

Why is that?

For one thing, if the complaint comes from someone who belongs to the subordinate group, there is an immediate perception that they are speaking in self-interest, and overt action on behalf of one’s self-interest is never well-received by dominant groups when it comes from subordinates, particularly from women.  It’s labeled as “strident” or “whining.”

All the while, dominant groups–say, men, or white people–may be acting in their own self-interest, but it’s just accepted as normal striving, part of the great American way.

For people in subordinate groups and their allies, it can be a difficult challenge to raise the issue of dominant groups’ unearned privilege without setting off all kinds of defensive reactions or tricky deflections, as when a whole class is spent talking about affirmative action instead of about unearned privilege.

If I knew the answer to this conundrum, I would be a much better teacher than I am.  All I can do is keep trying to pull students’ attention back to that minefield of privilege and oppression, and tread carefully–but without turning back.

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