Tag Archives: Beautifully different

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Uncategorized, Women in media

Songs in the Key of Life

(title taken from the title of Stevie Wonder‘s masterwork album, released in 1976)

There’s a new maturity in the Rock Bands, and I’m not the only one to have noticed. This year, we are performing more than we have in ages, and the pressure of nonstop shows seems to be helping us trust each other to work to get our parts right, listen closely and work together in rehearsal, and use the adrenaline that comes with performing to bring out our best. Preparing for this most recent concert was especially challenging as a number of group members were also involved in the winter play and so had to miss two weeks of rehearsals shortly before our own performance. But that circumstance has given me several moments I’ll remember through the end of my career and beyond.

Charlotte, on her first rehearsal of the Beatles song “Hold Me Tight” less than two weeks before the performance, relaxing into the song and dancing along. Mailande, a few days later joining that same group, leaning in to the bridge and focusing on getting every single note precisely in tune. Ellie, finding out she was not only playing piano on “You Give Love a Bad Name” but also had a solo, quietly digging in, sight-reading what she could, learning the flow of the song when she got to the parts she would have to practice, calling me over as needed to talk her through the part so she could learn it for our next rehearsal. And Kate, again with “Hold Me Tight,” taking on possibly the hardest bass part anyone has attempted in the 16 years I’ve been teaching the group, insisting not on perfection every single time but perfection at least once before the performance, smiling on her way out of rehearsal one night as I said, “Awesome job, Kate. It sounds gorgeous.” And these are just four examples. Every single person in the groups had at least one moment that made me think, “I am so lucky to work with these kids.”

During the performance, with all four groups, there was no hesitation in taking the stage, no last minute nervous questions before we got set. They sailed through the songs with confidence, and left the stage not with the half-stunned feeling of “Hey, we did it!” of earlier performances but rather with a sense of quiet accomplishment. The audience noticed, too. Along with the usual warm thanks and congratulations, one of the parents came up to me and observed, “They’re really coming together.”

Music, and the arts in general, bring so much to kids’ lives. Yet music is disappearing from public schools, forced out by the focus on testing, on meeting rigorous standards, on (if you’re a teacher) keeping your job and on (if you have any job in K-12 education) keeping your school open in the first place. This makes it all the more mystifying when a famous musician lends his name to the corporatist reform movement. In his piece “John Legend and the Well-Meaning Corporatists,” José Vilson writes, “Sadly, John’s legend in education will show a man who supports kids using pencils to bubble in scan-ready sheets rather than notes for the keys to their own lives.” (Vilson)

“Notes for the keys to their own lives.” That’s exactly what I want for all my students. It’s what all good teachers want for all their students. So, while I am appreciative of my good fortune in being able to teach music in my own special world, I feel I owe it to the larger world of education to advocate for the arts. The benefits of the arts should be clear. Even research – which would technically be included in the mass of data with which so many corporatist reformers are in love – shows those benefits. These kids are developing and using their voices. So must I. So must we all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Performing Arts, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

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.

Leave a comment

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

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.

Leave a comment

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

Not One Dollar: Guest Post From Charlotte M. ’16

Charlotte M. ’16 recently guest blogged at Twitter Youth Feminist Army‘s Blog, JellyPop. She wrote about the Women’s Film Series here at SBS organized by Mary P. ’13 and her experience watching “Iron Jawed Angels.” In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we’d like to share it with you, and we hope you’ll want to find out more!

“My name is Charlotte and I am a freshman at S-B School. Part of my school’s goal is to help students find their voices, and I have wanted to find my voice since I was nine years old. I have wanted to find my voice since an exhibit taught me to fear death, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation. I have wanted to find my voice since I realized that I could use it to change my life. But I never thought of using it to change someone else’s, and I never realized that what I thought was a personal struggle was something women faced all around the world: not being heard. I knew that women were oppressed, but it seemed like a distant problem that I had no connection to. This year, a single film changed that for me, something I never thought a movie could do…”

Read the rest of Charlotte’s blog post here.

1 Comment

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

Women’s Film Series Project at SBS

Ever since I came to Stoneleigh Burnham School in 2010, my interest in Women’s Activism has grown rapidly. I have spent three years engaging in intellectually stimulating conversations with many talented and promising young women. This school understands the importance of guiding young women to express themselves and seek change outside of the classroom. My goal is to bring in ideas and perspectives that will leave a lasting impression. We, as SBS girls, may live in a place where our voices can be heard, but in the outside world, women are often silenced. The oppression of women is not just a foreign issue, but increasingly present in the United States, where supposedly, “all citizens are created equal.” My frustration towards our gender’s oppression has inspired me to spread awareness to the SBS community. When I was given the opportunity to create a CAS (Community Action Service) project for the IB program, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to harness my passion for women’s activism and use it to inform the school. Ultimately I decided to create a Women’s Film Series, in which I would air inspiring documentaries and movies about the struggles of women around the world and the women who have led in the fight for equality.

On January 12th, the first night of my film series began with a showing of the documentary “Miss Representation,” directed by Jennifer Siebel. This is an inspiring film about the misrepresentation of women in the media. The students who attended this showing were outraged by how women are often portrayed in movies, TV shows, magazines and newspapers. Even the most powerful women in the United States, and throughout the world, have been bombarded with disrespect and mistreatment. The students left the film, feeling the need to seek change. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start this Film Series.

In the coming weeks I will be showing the following films: “Iron Jawed Angels,” directed by Katja von Garnier, which depicts the struggles of Alice Paul, founder of the National Women’s Party, to achieve suffrage in the United States. I then will show “Half The Sky,” a two-part documentary inspired by the book “Half the Sky,” by Nicolas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. This film documents the journey of author Nicolas D. Kristof and several celebrity activists into ten countries to tell the story of inspiring women. The women that they interview have lived in a world where forced prostitution, sex trafficking, maternal mortality, and gender-based violence have taken place. The last film on my list will be aired during Women’s History Month. I will be showing the documentary, “Gloria: In her Own Words,” directed by Peter Kunhardt. This film chronicles the life of Gloria Steinem, a prominent figure in the Women’s Movement. So, when this Film Series has finished, I hope that this community will have been inspired to become women’s activists and strive to seek change around the world.

– Mary P., 2013

 

2 Comments

Filed under Gender, International Baccalaureate, On Education, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Fight Club

After a morning chat with my wife, I decided to check in on my various social media accounts before heading out to the Wash ‘n Wire, giving my cat a few extra minutes of post-breakfast lap time. My first, and as it turned out only, stop was Facebook, where the first post was from “Toward the Stars” referencing “Fight Club,” an article in “The Telegraph” about the Asgarda tribe in Ukraine. Composed entirely of women and led by Katerina Tarnouska, the tribe follows the traditions of the ancient Amazons, training in the martial arts and “[learning] life skills and sciences in order to become ideal women.”
Most years, at some point in time, my students ask whether female-dominated cultures exist, and I file this away should the question arise this year. Ukraine is a country where women are subject to sexual trafficking and gender oppression, and that is a contributing factor to the existence of this tribe. So does their existence serve to demonstrate the power of women taking control of their lives or is it sad commentary on the depth of damage that can be done by institutionalized sexism? Or both? Well… my students can wrestle with those questions should the topic come up.

Scrolling down, I came almost immediately on another “Toward the Stars” posting referencing a new law in Israel that requires models to have a BMI of at least 18.5, the borderline between being healthy and being underweight. Inês Almeida, the founder of the organization, was asking for reactions, so I commented, “Mixed feelings, actually. A positive first step but one that still keeps the focus on how women look and the locus of control external to women themselves. Maybe it’s an essential first step. But ultimately, I believe, we want women’s self-esteem to come from within and for physical appearance to be more connected to general health than specific and arbitrary external standards.”
Of course, one of the main aspects of our school’s mission is to develop that internal resilience and sense of self that feeds and supports the individual voices of our students and alumni/ae. Again, I can be all but guaranteed that this topic will come up at some point in time this year in my Humanities 7 class (I’ve already seen questions that connect to it as they have begun the work of designing units), and this article could provide a great point of discussion.

The morning leaves me feeling simultaneously saddened and hopeful. There is so much work to do and such a long journey ahead. And at the same time, the work is being done and the journey is progressing. What strategies will be the most successful in advancing this work? What role will my students play in it? How will they connect, network, support each other – for one thing, when Facebook, Twitter, and iPhones seem quaint, as is bound to happen, what tools will they have and what possibilities will those open up? Sometimes, I have almost as many questions as my students. And that’s a good thing.

Meanwhile, the fight continues. And that’s a good thing too.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumnae, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School