Category Archives: Women in media

Meeting of Minds

One day in Humanities 7, class, we were talking about different ideas of what is feminism and what is feminine when suddenly their voices began to get louder and more urgent. There was an edge, and I could tell there was something below the surface I hadn’t quite deciphered yet when one of the girls told another, “You’re a dudist!” Before I’d recovered laughing from the inventive spontaneity of the word “dudist,” I knew I had finally figured out what was going on: some kids in the class viewed feminism as inherently anti-men, while others didn’t. I explained that, while there is indeed a small and often vocal group of feminists who are anti-men and who perhaps get disproportionate coverage in the media, by no means do they speak for all feminists. One could, I told the kids, in fact argue there are as many kinds of feminism as there are feminists. And that led to an inspiration.

“Some of the strongest feminists in this school,” I told the students, “are in Ms. Durrett’s Sophomore Honors English class. Would you like to invite them to join us one day to talk about all this?” They loved the idea, as did Ms. Durrett and her students. Both classes wrote questions to help frame the discussion, and on the appointed day, the sophomores came streaming into our room, the eyes of former Humanities 7 students lighting up as their faces softened with memories. The kids all settled into every beanbag chair in the middle school, some doubling up, with a look of anticipation on their faces.

Though not all the questions dealt directly with feminism, that’s where we began the discussion. There was remarkable agreement, actually, over what I think of as the core ideals of feminism: equal rights for all people, including girls and women. There was, however, a much more extended discussion of the word itself. Few students were comfortable with it, for a host of reasons including, for some, its reinforcement of a binary view of gender. The seventh graders had come up with the term “equalist” the day before, and many of the sophomores nodded slowly as they considered it. “I like it,” one said, and a sophomore who followed up after the discussion with ideas for this blog identified that as one of three specific stand-out moments for her “because [the term “equalism”] offers a wider acceptance and understanding of what feminism stands for.”

Whether and how we will be able to achieve the ideals of equalism is another question altogether, of course. Students felt firmly that the concept that we all should be seeking equality should become the norm and not the ideal, but they were deeply skeptical we would ever be able to truly achieve equality. Humans, they felt, seem to have a natural need for hierarchies, and of course different people have different aptitudes and affinities. However, they hastened to point out, that need not automatically lead to assigning gender to those roles, and hierarchies don’t necessarily have to be attached to them either.

When the topic turned to girls schools, most of the students, though definitely not all, said they came here looking to get away from the behaviors and influences of boys. They love our academic way of being and the way students listen to each other’s ideas, hear them out, and build on them. One sophomore told a story of attending a debate where a girl from another school had a long name, and shocked our student by apologizing for it to the teacher serving as a judge who had to write it down. This led another another sophomore to say, “It’s one thing to apologize for being rude, it’s another to apologize for your existence.”

One of the seventh graders observed a similar gap in confidence between students at our school and girls in coed schools, noting that some of her friends have changed a ton in just the three short months we’ve been here while she has basically stayed true to herself. It stunned and scared her how quickly that gap had opened up, but it also made her grateful for what she had. Another sophomore noted, in another high point of the discussion, that Stoneleigh-Burnham “has taught us to be more than girls and women. It has taught us to be individuals.”

Though we had not specifically planned on discussing sports culture, we segued pretty naturally to that topic while discussing girls schools. Deeply saddening was the near universality of the girls’ experiences in athletics and with their coaches before coming to our school, where they felt they weren’t taken seriously, were actively discouraged from doing sports (by their own coaches!), and were in some cases outright belittled and even bullied (by their own coaches!). The students acknowledged the differences between women and men in terms of muscle mass, upper body strength, and center of gravity, but at the same time several students also affirmed that women’s legs were stronger than men’s (it is worth noting here that, from what I’ve read, the general consensus seems to be that if a woman ever holds a non-gender-specific world record in any event, it is most likely to be the marathon). This discussion led naturally to pointing out inequities in men’s and women’s sports, and most especially media coverage of male and female athletes (both the frequency and the nature of that coverage), to general agreement and outrage.

We kept talking right up to and even a little bit beyond the bell, and as the students jumped up and hoisted their backpacks to their shoulders, many of them, sophomores and seventh graders alike, asked if we could do it again. Of course they would want to do so – throughout the period, they were uniformly respectful and listened actively to everyone. Many voices of all ages were heard, and they had created an atmosphere of equals. We had left untouched their questions about gender identity, and had only just begun to touch on issues with the media. No doubt, they have many more questions they still want to ask. No doubt, we will be doing this again.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School, Women in media

Through Peace, Through Dialogue, Through Education

“Education is a power for women.”
Malala Yousafzai

“This question is hard!” a student good-naturedly pointed out to me. “You always ask such broad questions.” “Of course it’s hard,” I said. “I want you all to think, to think deeply, to – how do I put this? – learn things.” I gave her my “Call me crazy” shrug and she turned back to her discussion partner to figure out “What is a girl?”

As we were discussing everyone’s answers to the question, Mia asked, “What is ‘feminine?’” Everyone laughed, and several students jumped to try to look it up on their iPads. “Nope,” I said, halting them. “Dictionaries don’t always tell the whole story. It’s a really important question, and we’ll come back to it when we’ve finished with the main line of thought in the discussion.” About five minutes later, I wrote “Traditional ideas of feminine” and “Our ideas of feminine” on two panels of the white board. Olivia transcribed the students’ thoughts on traditional ideas, and Siobhan transcribed the girls’ original thoughts. Traditional ideas included “how to be proper,” “stay-at-home wife,” “long hair” and “meek and obedient,” among others. Asked to determine what threads ran through these ideas, the students came up with “keep contained,” “be ruled over,” “ideal (not reality),” “how you look,” “no voice,” and “housewife (specific role).” They noted that with every single trait listed, outside forces were trying to control and judge women.

Their ideas on ‘feminine” could not have contrasted more: powerful, strong, confident, being who you are, persistent, independent, awesome, rising… The connecting threads between these ideas which the students identified included positive, actions, having a voice, empowerment, breaking ties/breaking chains/freeing. With every single trait listed, they noted, girls and women were in control of their identities and their lives.

We held this discussion on Wednesday, October 9, coincidentally one year to the day after Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban on her way to school for having advocated for girls’ education. Also on the anniversary of the shooting, the Taliban renewed threats to kill her if she continues to remain outspoken on the policies and practices in Pakistan. Yet, Malala, frequently seen as one of the leading candidates for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (which would make her, at 16, the youngest recipient ever), remains firm in her convictions: “I will be a politician in my future,” she said. “I want to change the future of my country, and I want to make education compulsory.” (Craig and Mehsud)

So as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl on October 11, reflecting on Malala’s courageous example of my students’ feminine ideal, I leave you with her words when Jon Stewart asked her if she had been afraid the Taliban would target her:
I started thinking about it, and I started thinking the Talib would come and he would just kill me. But then I said, if he comes, what would you do, Malala? Then I would reply to myself, Malala, just take a shoe and hit him. But then I said, if you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace, and through dialogue, and through education.
*****
For those interested in learning more, Malala has released her memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Women in media

Feminist Dress Code

During the course of the summer, as a frequent Twitter user, I read innumerable posts on girls and women, what they wear, what it means, and what it ought to mean. A number of websites specifically questioned school dress codes, claiming they were belittling to girls – and, for that matter, boys – in the assumptions underlying restrictions on clothing for girls. Those assumptions might include the motivations of girls for making certain choices, the reactions of boys to those choices, and where the responsibility lies in that interplay. Culture plays a role in those assumptions, of course, but in general the majority of people in our society tend to associate revealing clothing with deliberate sexualization, assume that boys will be distracted in those cases, and ascribe responsibility to girls for their original clothing choices.

There’s no question that the sexualization of young girls is a legitimate issue in our society. For one thing, society in general and the media in particular (see Teen Vogue for example) relentlessly focus teenage girls on how they look, to the point that (as we discussed in the 2012-2013 Humanities 7 class) girls often, horrifyingly, envision themselves not from within but rather from a third-person perspective. At no point should girls buy into or otherwise accept being objectified.

That said, there are at least three potential problems with judging clothing based on the perceived degree of sexualization. One is that it makes an assumption about the intent of the wearer that may or not be true. Another is that it ascribes the right to judge girls’ and women’s bodies to people other than themselves. A third is the difficulty in finding a way to encourage girls not to objectify themselves without stigmatizing them in the process.

Making the assumption that boys would be distracted by what girls are wearing also carries a number of problems. First, of course, is the underlying heteronormative assumption. Not all boys are attracted to girls, and not only boys are attracted to girls. Secondly, there’s the assumption that people are initially attracted to other people by their appearance; for some people, attraction is based more on personality and less on looks. Thirdly, there’s the underlying assumption that people are necessarily attracted to other people; asexual people may not be a large percentage of the population, but they do exist. And fourthly, there’s the untenable assumption that boys would be unable to properly set their priorities.

Even if there are boys who are distracted by what girls are wearing, the argument that it is then incumbent on the girls to wear something different is completely missing the point. It is the exact equivalent of blaming the victim. As Katie J. M. Baker succinctly put it at Jezebel (standard warning of strong images and language to those who follow any Jezebel link), “teaching teenagers that girls shouldn’t wear certain clothes if they don’t want to distract or tempt boys is just like telling women to avoid dressing like sluts if they don’t want to be raped.”

So we know some assumptions a school dress code should not be making. Yet, as some of the middle school students have said down through the years whenever our school’s dress code comes up in discussion, the school is essentially their workplace. Some sort of dress code, most of them agree, makes sense. But what form should it then take?

The students who have talked to me about their ideals generally use words like “neat” and “respectful.” That seems to make sense, and you see these principles reflected in the opening statement to our dress code, written by a student-faculty committee: “In general, students are expected to take pride in their appearance and be dressed for the academic day (7:55 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.) in appropriate attire that fits properly and shows a modesty befitting the class day.” So far, so good. The trick is agreeing on what it means to take pride in your appearance and what it means to be dressed for the academic day.

Over the seven years since we installed this dress code, the four main bones of contention have been: height of heels, graphics on t-shirts, hoods, and the exact width of straps on tops or dresses (the current standard is three fingers). When we next revise the dress code, which may be this year as it came up in the first Student Council discussion, the people who make up that committee will need to deal with these kinds of questions, among others:

      At what point in time does a heel become so high it is medically unhealthy to wear a particular pair of shoes, and is that the appropriate standard for our school to set?

 

      Can and should we agree on what graphics would be considered appropriate if we were to once again allow them on t-shirts?

 

      Could and would it work to allow hoods as long as they are not pulled up during the academic day?

 

      How do we best balance the need for comfort in extremely hot and humid weather with the concept of “modesty befitting the class day”?

 

    And what about the concept of “modesty” in general?

More deeply, we need to look at how we support students in making clothing choices that balance the need to express their authentic selves with an awareness of how they are perceived without either shaming them or inadvertently reinforcing society’s and the media’s tendency to judge and to overly focus girls and women on their appearance. With careful thought and consideration, then, we should be able to come up with what might be called a feminist dress code.

That is, we should be able to do so if indeed the concepts of “feminist” and “dress code” can even co-exist, as a member of the “Toward the Stars” community pointed out this summer on Facebook.

No dress code will fully satisfy all members of any given community, of course – including the absence of a dress code. But coming to grips with the notion of a feminist dress code? That would be an achievement worth striving for.

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Gender Matters

You could say I was frustrated. On the way home from Virginia on Sunday, April 7, at a gas station near Scranton, I had downloaded first the CBS Sports app and then the ESPN Sports app, but was unable to tune in to the UConnNotre Dame game. Baseball, NBA, and discussions about baseball and the NBA – and men’s college basketball – abounded across my virtual dial. However, nowhere could I find a live broadcast of the women’s Division-I basketball semi-final game even though it featured one of the premier rivalries in sports.

Shaking my head, I sent out a general tweet asking my friends to keep me informed of the half-time and final scores, started up my car, and got back on the road. Jeremy Deason, our former Athletic Director, and Susie Highley, a middle school teacher friend from Indiana, would both oblige, updating me every 10 basketball minutes or so. I knew Liz Feeley, our Director of Development and a former Notre Dame coach, had been nervous with excitement and anticipation all day, and I decided if only one of us was to be able to experience the game firsthand, it should be her. She must have been experiencing her own frustration, though, since Notre Dame ended up falling to UConn by nearly 20 points, a highly atypical margin from two teams who had produced a one-point game, a triple-overtime game, and a two-point game over the course of the season (all three games going to Notre Dame).

And so it was that Tuesday night, April 9, I was sitting with my legs stretched out on the couch, my computer balanced on my lap as I worked on my preps, my cat scrunched between my legs with her chin on my ankles, my lucky Connecticut Sun cap on my head, watching the pre-game show with an edge of excitement and anticipation. They were profiling Louisville’s star point guard Shoni Schimmel, and in my haze of trying to think what might be a fun activity for my French 2 class to learn the new imparfait tense, I heard one announcer mention that at age six, she was playing with boys. I looked up half-curious, half-perturbed, to see where they would go with this inane insight. Luckily, they dropped that line of thought quickly and focused on her career and her accomplishments. But the moment left me thinking.

Recently, there was a bit of controversy over a statement by Mark Cuban that he would consider drafting Brittney Griner, the 6’8” Baylor senior who has dominated the game from her freshman year, for his NBA team the Mavericks. Part of the controversy, of course, was whether she was genuinely good enough to play in the NBA. But another part of the controversy was whether or not she should even try. Some people felt she should go for it, making the point that there are women good enough to play with the guys. Others felt she should go for it, making the point that one should follow one’s opportunities wherever they lead. Still others felt she should stick to the WNBA, a lifelong dream of hers and one of the premier women’s leagues in the world, adding the cachet that a player of her quality can bring even to a well-established league with many stars.

Pat Summitt, the retired coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee, accumulated 1098 victories during her career, more than any other Division-I basketball coach. From time to time, the question would come up: Could she coach men? The general consensus was divided between two opinions – one the one hand, people believing that of course she could coach men, and on the other hand, people wondering what the heck kind of question is that anyway?! Because after all, she is the winningest coach in history. She loved her job, she loved her players, and she was proud of what they accomplished. She has nothing to prove. And besides, the question suggests that coaching men is tougher and/or somehow more important than coaching women. Granted, the men’s game is awash in much more money than the women’s game, and coaches (and, at the professional level, players) make much more on the men’s side. But that’s just money and has nothing to do with actual importance.

That said, as women’s basketball gains in respect and in financial resources, more and more men are drawn to coaching women, and the percentage of women coaches has fallen even as no woman to my knowledge has yet coached a men’s team at the Division-I college or professional level. That is a disparity worth noting – and worth correcting.

Recently, browsing through a Barnes and Noble bookstore, I picked up Pat Summitt’s autobiography, Sum it Up: A Thousand and Ninety-Eight Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses, and a Life in Perspective. In it, she describes a moment when she was doing a question-and-answer session and one person asked her “How do you coach women?” She fixed him with her Gaze and responded with perhaps a tinge of scorn, “You don’t coach women, you coach basketball.”

I remember taking my son and my nephew to their first WNBA game, the Connecticut Sun vs. the Phoenix Mercury right after Phoenix had taken UConn alumna Diana Taurasi in the draft. I can still picture the moment. Standing right in front of us, Taurasi caught a pass and redirected the ball toward a teammate in one impossibly quick flick of her fingertips. My nephew turned to me and excitedly asked, “Who is that?” (My son already knew.)

Good basketball is indeed good basketball, whoever plays it and whoever coaches it, and anyone I know who has truly given the women’s game a chance has enjoyed it. Yet, for most fans, and apparently for most pro team owners and college presidents (who hire coaches), gender still matters. That Shoni Schimel played with boys at age six should be entirely beside the point. Whether or not Pat Summitt could have coached men should be entirely beside the point. Whether or not Brittney Griner could play in the NBA should be entirely beside the point. Someday, maybe that will be true. Maybe then, CBS Sports and ESPN will see the wisdom of giving women’s sports equal weight.

And maybe then, cars passing me on the highway near Scranton will be able to hear me yelling every time UConn scores.

**********
P.S. For those who don’t already know and who may be curious, UConn did win the championship, beating Louisville 93-60. This tied coach Geno Auriemma with Pat Summitt for eight championships, the record in women’s ball and two behind overall NCAA Division-I record holder John Wooden.

P.P.S. For those who may be interested, here is a link to the Pat Summitt Foundation which raises money to fight Alzheimer’s Disease.

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Filed under Athletics, Gender, In the Classroom, On Athletics, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School, Women in media

Incontestably Human

Recently, one of my Facebook friends posted that she was riding in a taxi when the driver told her, “You know, you’re very lovely, very classy for a black lady.” Flabbergasted (her word), she responded, “Well, I’m sure you THOUGHT that was a compliment, so thank you.” During the Facebook conversation that followed this retelling, one of her friends commented, “Educating people out of their disillusion, fear, and stereotyping is a difficult thing, no?”

Yes, it is. And perhaps especially so with racism, since our country has evolved to the point where most people become deeply hurt, offended, and/or angry if someone calls them, or something they said, racist. That already complicates things enough when you’re talking about someone’s individual views, actions, and statements, but when someone, perhaps even someone who is deeply anti-racist, believes, does, or says something that is completely well intentioned but which is steeped in systemic racism, it can become almost impossible to start a discussion.

Interestingly, while sexism is also a huge problem in our country, I’m not sure the same level of tension always exists when attempting to start a conversation about a specific incident whether rooted in individual beliefs or infused by a systemic sexism. And that brings us to a recent incident at Phillips Academy, an independent high school commonly known as Andover as it is located in that Massachusetts town.

For me, it began with Soraya Chemaly (a Huffington Post writer on gender issues who, it turns out, attended Andover) tweeting a link to an editorial in “The Phillipian,” the school’s student newspaper, entitled “Not Post-Gender Yet.” I read it, loved it, and retweeted it. The author of the editorial, a sophomore named Grace Tully, began by stating common misconceptions of what a feminist is and affirming the need to break down those (mostly negative) stereotypes, stating: “It is our job as a generation to change that.” She wrote of the historical silencing of women and the ongoing issue of sexual objectification. Looking at a recent and ongoing controversy on her campus, she noted the issue of “a latent fear that the empowerment of women will result in the disempowerment of men.” In the end, she argued, “The fight for gender equality should not be limited to any specific orientation, political party, culture, religion or sex. It is an incontestably human fight that should encompass us all.”

The controversy at Andover to which Ms. Tully was referring involves elections for the Student Council co-presidents. Since the 1973 merger between the all-male Phillips Academy and the all-female Abbot Academy, the school has had only four female presidents. In what is commonly thought to be an attempt to address this issue, this year’s Student Council implemented a structural change in which pairs of students would run as co-presidents. The finalists included one team of two boys and one team of a boy and a girl. Thus, when a letter to the editor of “The Phillipian” dated March 1, 2013 asked students to “Keep in mind long term consequences—the pair you select could set a precedent and break down any remaining barriers for both boys and girls to run in the future,” tensions around issues of gender and fairness ignited.

Katherine Q. Seelye, in preparation for writing the “New York Times” article “School Vote Stirs Debate on Girls as Leaders,” spoke to a number of students to get their takes on the situation. Many of the girls felt that “previous generations of women had broken down important legal barriers, but today’s struggle was against a less overt sexism that was embedded in cultural attitudes.” (Seelye) As Jinq Qu, an 18-year-old Senior, observed “The access has been achieved, but the equality in terms of roles has not.” Meanwhile, Daniel Feeny, a 16-year-old student, said he had been raised with feminist values and added “It’s surprising to me to get here and see women say they are still treated unfairly.” The phrasing is key here – is the surprise purely that women are claiming unfair treatment, or is it also that women are in fact treated unfairly?

Daniel’s situation brings up what many of this year’s 8th graders in our school have told me about their experience. They believe strongly that, as girls, they are being taken seriously and genuinely encouraged to use and develop their voices. Their concern is what will happen in the outside world once they graduate. How will they develop the resilience, persistence, and assertiveness necessary to survive in a world that, like it or not, is still sexist?

Meanwhile, one of our faculty members shared a link to the “New York Times” article on our email system, intending to provoke (and succeeding in provoking) further thought on the notion of girls and leadership. And in point of fact, in recent years, our own school has not had vast multitudes of candidates for the position of President of Student Council even though, by definition, we know a girl is going to win.

Examine for a moment of your own reaction to the sentence you just read. What were you thinking? That girls need to push themselves in to leadership positions more often? That girls’ leadership styles need to be considered? That girls’ needs for connections can be both a blessing and a curse? That girls may have more difficulty being competitive than boys (for internal or external reasons)? That there may actually be non-gender-based reasons why more students don’t run for President of Student Council? Really, any or all of these reasons, and more, could conceivably explain it. It’s hard to tell for sure.

That’s how systemic sexism works. It sits there in the background, coloring our thoughts, making it difficult to sort out the truth, silently and invisibly confusing the matter and complicating efforts to work for equality. An anonymous commenter on the original letter to the editor seems to have nailed it: “Also, the issue of a lack of female leadership stretches far beyond Andover and is arguably (and unfortunately) the result of sentiments deeply rooted in our collective cultural psyche. Simply changing the election model and asking voters to favor male-female tickets does not address these sentiments, and frankly seems like an artificial way of speeding up a reform whose time has not yet come, and whose time will not come until deeper issues are dealt with.”

In other words, we need to fight Grace Tully’s fight. John Palfrey, Andover’s Head of School, set the context in saying, ” “We do not live in a post-gender, post-race, post-class society. Girls have not had equal access to top leadership positions.” The victorious candidates at Andover, Junious Williams and Clark Perkins, have said “During our presidency, we will host a series of campus-wide forums discussing gender equity in student leadership.” (both quotes from the article by Seelye) My son attended Andover and in my experience, when they decide to face up to something that needs attention, they make a genuine effort to follow through.

So let’s identify and discuss those deeper issues. Let’s deal with them. And, echoing the words of John Palfrey among many others, let’s have the courage to face up not to the work we have to do not only on sexism but also on racism. Let’s also acknowledge the role of classism in this country. The issues are, after all, interrelated.

You can’t change a society overnight. But you can start by changing, bit by bit, the parts of society that make up the whole. And when, one day, finally, even if it is (as Rachel Simmons implied earlier this year) after we are dead, we reach a critical mass of changed parts, we’ll suddenly discover that society itself will have been changed.

And that will be one happy day.

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One Step Further

Rachel Simmons, the author of the ground-breaking Odd Girl Out and best-selling Curse of the Good Girl, has just co-authored along with Kate Farrar an article in the Huffington Post entitled “The Confidence Gap on Campus: Why College Women Need to Lean In.” Many readers will recognize the reference to Sheryl Sandberg‘s brand new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In the book, Ms. Sandberg argues among other things that women need to work to overcome “the stereotypes we internalize that hold us back,” (Sandberg, quoted in Adams) and “own their own ambition.” (Simmons and Farrar)

After presenting undeniable evidence that college women are not getting the leadership positions they have earned and deserve in as great a proportion as college men, Simmons and Farrar ask the women themselves what they need. Their answer? “Provide us the skills, supports and mentoring to build confidence to take risks and test our leadership on campus. College women want to be aware of and prepared for the barriers both on campus and as they enter the workplace.” (Simmons and Farrar) This sentiment echoes those expressed by many members of my 8th grade Life Skills class, namely that they are finding their voices, and they know they are being heard in our school. They want us to help them ensure they will be able to make their voices heard out in the world.

So both ensuring there is awareness of the inequity in the world and preparing girls and women to self-advocate is part of the solution. But we can’t place the entire weight of reform on women’s shoulders. True, only women can learn to self-advocate, and they must do so. At the same time, men and people of other genders need to join in as well. “This crisis of confidence in the face of unrelenting — and unfair — pressure is what Sandberg is shining a light on. Yet, she is being criticized for blaming women, when she is in fact indicting a culture that forces women to second-guess their own strengths.” (Simmons and Farrar)

Already, her book may be having some positive effects. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, has written of what he learned from the book: “I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven’t made in the last decade… After reading Lean In and listening to Sheryl, I realize that, while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk.” (Chambers, quoted in Upadhyaya) I’m sure others are out there, and with continued work, we can continue to change minds. The old boys network is real, and at some point in time, the old boys need to take the initiative to do the right thing.

That said, I would love to see us take these ideas one step farther. So often, it seems, we say we need to get more women into tech and into leadership positions at the highest level for two main reasons. One, to provide role models for younger women and girls. Two, to provide a viewpoint lacking in a male-dominated culture. We absolutely need positive female role models, and we absolutely need multiple viewpoints. However, knowing that the variance of ways of being within different genders is far greater than the variance of ways of being between men and women (usually, such statements are made within a binary concept of gender), we can also be aware that our real goal is not just including multiple genders in the workplace in truly equitable fashion, but also multiple viewpoints. In short, if our ultimate goal is to undermine and eventually do away with patriarchy and to claim equality and equity for absolutely all people, part of that goal may need to be acknowledging that gender is far more complicated than a simple binary system would lead us to believe – what we have traditionally called femininity and masculinity can be applied in differing ways not just to men and women but also to all people of all possible genders.

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Build Your Own House

I was all set to jump on the Sheryl Sandberg bandwagon – and I’m not normally the bandwagon type. But I was caught up in the perfect storm. Within less than 48 hours, I stumbled on the cover story in Time Magazine, found a link to a piece about her in Jezebel (standard warning about visiting this site if you mind strong language), and discovered her Twitter account as well as that of LeanIn.org, on online organization “committed to offering women the encouragement and support to lean in to their ambitions.” There was even an indirect connection to Toward the Stars, an organization I’ve supported since its inception, as they offer empowering alternatives to Gymboree‘s “Smart Like Dad” and “Pretty Like Mommy” line referred to by Ms. Sandberg when she said, “I would love to say that was 1951, but it was last year. As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked, and that starts with those T-shirts.” And as an educator in a progressive girls school, how could I not love the fundamental message behind Ms. Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead?

And then, searching on my computer for the Jezebel article as I prepared to begin writing this blog, I found Tracy Moore’s thoughtful take on what Sheryl Sandberg has to teach us about the state of modern day feminism and I was reminded that few issues are ever as simple as they seem on first blush.

Let’s start with a few givens. Equity for all people, of all genders, should be a goal toward which we are working, however we do so and whatever we choose to call that work. And when Sheryl Sandberg calls attention not only to the resistance of far too many men to including women in the topmost reaches of power but also women’s own role in undermining their rise to power, she seems to be assigning responsibility for this undeniable inequality across the range of genders. In this perspective, she echoes the thoughts of Gloria Steinem who argues that rape culture is a result not only of the cult of masculinity but also of the unwittingly supportive cult of femininity. Patriarchy may be the problem, but men are not the only gender aiding and abetting its continuation. Speaking in generalities, of course, and not to every single member of every single gender.

But in taking what might be called a balanced approach to gender politics, Ms. Sandberg has certainly opened herself up to criticism. While some see her as a positive role model who is encouraging women to acknowledge and express their ambitions, others view her as undermining feminist goals. Is she encouraging women to empower themselves or blaming the victim? Is she calling out men for perpetuating gender stereotypes or encouraging women to submit to those stereotypes? And along with all that, is she aware of the role the privilege she’s had in her own life has played in her own rise to the top and how that may put her out of touch with the lives and realities of most women?

It reminds me of Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! CEO who recently rescinded her company’s “work from home” policy. Having come to national attention for having won her new job while pregnant and for making the choice to return to work within several weeks of giving birth, Ms. Mayer shocked many of her supporters and was roundly criticized for instituting this new policy commonly perceived as “anti-family.” Earlier on, she had been roundly criticized for not taking a maternity leave.

But, you may be wondering, if it had been, say, Michael Mayer who took this job as he was about to become a new parent, would we even be talking about this?

Exactly.

My cousin and I were twitter-chatting about this one day. His point was that, without knowing everything that went into Ms. Mayer’s decision to rescind the “work at home” policy, there was no way we could fairly judge it. My point was that, on top of that, we as a society are far quicker to judge women in issues of work-family (please, don’t ever say “work-life”) balance than we are men.

And “we as a society” includes not just women but also men and people of other genders.

Ms. Sandberg, under criticism by a good number of feminists, expresses the sentiment that “The problem isn’t about fixing the women. The problem is about gender roles and dynamics and the expectations and norms that exist in the workplace. As long as we keep emphasizing how to fix the women, I don’t think we’re going to get very far.” (Sandberg, quoted on CNN) She is calling on women to lean in to their ambition and promote themselves. Sounds like feminism to me. And in a world where there are way too few women in the upper reaches of management and way too few women in the tech field, Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Mayer are undeniably living proof that women can find success in these fields, and both are advocating for the empowerment of women. Yet, in the eyes of some people, largely feminists, they don’t conform to some ideal of how they feel feminism should be and therefore are traitors to the cause.

And there is where Tracy Moore’s article comes in. She refers to a Slate article by Hanna Rosin in which Ms. Rosin writes, “Recently I was part of a panel on the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique. A big part of the discussion centered on why young women today don’t want to call themselves feminists, which dismayed the other panelists. Afterward a high-school girl in the audience stood up to ask a question. She said that in her progressive school the girls were “creaming” the boys at virtually everything. She said they were better at sports and got better grades and ran all the extracurricular clubs. But the one thing she and her friends could not get anyone to do was join the feminist club. The answer to her particular predicament seemed obvious to me, the old feminist, although it felt impolite to say it at the time: My daughter, it’s time to kick you out of the house and then shut the house down. You need to build your own house now.” (Rosin, quoted in Moore)

As regular readers of this blog know, 15-year-old Lili Evans of England is organizing the #TwitterYouthFeministArmy and one of our school’s 9th graders, Charlotte ’16, became only the second guest blogger at the site, writing about how the Women’s Film Series organized by Mary ’13 helped her realize what it means to find, seize, and use your voice and how that relates to her self-defining as a feminist. I feel as though feminist ideals are being embraced more openly through our school than ever, and that it is suddenly more cool to call yourself a feminist than – well, at least in the 28 years I’ve worked here. But – as Ms. Moore would have it – they are not only embracing feminism but also creating their own individual paths. And, I would argue, that’s as it should be.

After all, our school is not about molding student voice to preconceived notions but rather about enabling girls to find, develop, and use their own individual voices. Not one of my students believes women should conform to stereotypes. But each of my students has a unique vision for her own life. Some of them are proud to call themselves feminists and others shy away from the term, but all are embracing feminist ideals. In short, they are building their own house.

Like most independent schools, we have just sent out another round of admissions packets inviting another round of applicants to join our community. As I think ahead to the new community already beginning to form that will populate my classroom next year, and other classes in years ahead, I can guarantee this: I will always work to open their eyes, if I see the need, to the sexism and inequities that surround them. And I will always work to encourage them to embrace the ideals of feminism, that all people of all genders achieve equal respect for themselves exactly as they are, and achieve true equity in the process. However, along with all that, I will always work to avoid pushing them to follow a certain path. My current students are building their own house, and they will be role models for my new students next year, and so on down the line. But each of those new students will also be an individual person, a wonderful and unique person. What house will each of them choose to build? Time will tell.

One feels Sheryl Sandberg would approve.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School, Women in media