“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.
Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t.
And, contrary wise,
what it is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
Recently, much praised New York Times journalist, Thomas L. Friedman, apparently serious, questioned Hillary Clinton and Christine Lagarde “Is there still a double standard in the media about how women are treated…” The audience at the Fifth Annual Women of the World Summit in New York erupted in laughter.
Secretary Clinton captured the humor and rejoined, lightly, “Really, Tom…”
She then offered her recollection of advice given regarding office decor when she was a young lawyer in Arkansas: If you are a male professional and have a family, display photographs to signify your responsibility, reliability and trustworthiness. Women should never display such photographs as this suggests to the client distractibility and mixed priorities.
But that was way back in the Seventies, Eighties?
Women, we are told, have truly “come a long way” in the kinetic decades intervening.
Scrutiny discloses an elliptical tale.
In the United States, the pursuit of a level playing field for men and women of all races and incomes in terms of power, politics, work and family life is ongoing.
Some sources poll statistics to suggest that, in the western world, women enjoy political power in historically large numbers as elected officials and appointed judges, commissioners and directors. Women occupy significant numbers of industry leadership positions especially outside the United States. Educational institutions demonstrate a more equitable “leadership to population “gender ratio than ever before.
More than a few women have scaled barriers and amassed incomprehensible fortunes to rank among the world’s most wealthy.
Achievement in the more ordinary spheres of living in terms of gender equality also emerged. More female students graduate from college than do men. During the “great recession”, female breadwinner households emerged as a “new normal”.
Still, the unrelenting narrative of the overstressed, over-extended, hyper-vigilant, and never fulfilled “working mom” penetrates any fog of good feeling that gender equity might be on the horizon. Despite the fact that these tales invariable focus on middle and upper-middle class women to whom society, perhaps with duplicity, offers a “choice” regarding whether and how much to engage employment outside the home, this story has remarkable staying power. Through the decades, the chronicle of this burdened woman and her needy family has begotten innumerable new fashions, products, even industries: the time-savers, the stress-reducers, the educational, the “just like home-made.”
Ours is a culture of at least two minds about a woman’s place.
The little girl playing with her dolls, dreaming of the day when she too would be the bride “all dressed in white” attended by a bevy of beautiful maids as she crosses the threshold to her future, realizing her true self, the wife of the handsome tuxedo-clad man who stands admiring her…. This conceit successfully and lucratively pervaded American life for generations, certainly post World War II.
I remember my decidely level-headed mother had a huge book of wedding day photographs bound in a sumptuous white binder which was placed in sight but out of reach. The album featured, what the child considered, hundreds of twelve by twelve, black and white photographs of the most glamorous people. She in a pure silk flowing gown, he in his tails and stripped tie, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral under an October sun, an eternal smile from the rear window of an actual limousine…
Had my mother been a home economics student in 1954, her text would have prepared her for what came after the limousine as follows: “Have dinner ready, prepare yourself, prepare the children, minimize all noise, be happy to see him, listen to him, make the evening his.” There was no question that the married woman would have children. There was no question, the mother should not work outside the home. The employed spouse was definitely the male. There was certainly not even the vaguest notion that the married couple could be of the same gender. Perhaps only slightly more conceivable was an unmarried two parent household.
Conversations about housework, from the casual to the scholarly, can be remarkably provocative. In the early years of the United States Women’s Movement, suffragist, author and political theorist and activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman articulated “housework” denies a woman’s “humanness.” In the 1960’s, Betty Friedan’s popular political work, The Feminine Mystique captured the energy of a cross section of largely educated white, middle and upper middle class women dissecting cultural standards of feminine behavior as submissive, affective, fulfilled when living vicariously through others. In the early 1980’s Professor Angela Davis offered a challenging Marxist analysis of the issue. In 2011, the National Institute of Health reported that mothers employed part-time outside the home experience ideal adjustment as do their families.
Still, especially over the last two generations, society’s gaze has turned from how well a woman cleans the house or bakes a cake. Such services await those who can afford them. A busy female administrative assistant can purchase a candle light dinner for the Tuesday night dinner at the take out department of the supermarket by calling ahead or ordering online.
Today, our culture pursues the perfect mother.
Some still recall their own childhood friends gathering unsupervised and spontaneous at the playground, in the schoolyard, or “on the corner.” Childhoods of bygone days featured unaccountably fleeting hours producing little of tangible value. A book read. A confidence shared. A story written. A movie watched. A path explored.
Technology, crime, social competition, economics and social institutions eviscerated those now seemingly laconic childhoods. Children today largely live more structured lives with women the organizing force.
Today’s mother is often tasked with providing more than the expected needs of a child (food, clothing, shelter, love, safety). She must deliver the child to the gates of adulthood equipped to tread confidently and competently on the highest paths. “Intensive mothering” is a phrase describing mothers investing vast amounts of time, money, energy, and emotion into the raising of a child. It is perhaps a logical outgrowth of the shame/blame dynamic which has swirled around mothers in America for years.
In modern times, Freud propelled mothers to center stage to receive the “blame” for “causing” filial homosexuality by her over-protectiveness, or in the alternative, her indifference.
Mothers accepted the blame for autism in their children when it was alleged to be caused by maternal coldness.
Psychiatrists pronounced “schizophrenogenic” mothers (disturbed, self-deluding women with fluid identity boundaries) guilty of causing schizophrenia in their children.
Generally, mothers today are not blamed for causing specific diseases or disorders. However, many women report experiencing an overwhelming sense of guilt as mothers, absorbing criticism of their children, feeling responsible for the “failings” of the child as theyt were their own. This guilt is all the more painful and deep fifty years after Friedan’s analysis ignited a firestorm of controversy about the role of mothers in the workplace; ashes of debate singe the air.
On the home front, women still face expectations that every child requires unlimited access to his or her mother at all times. Any mother who is unwilling or unable to provide a child with this constant tenderness, is, quite simply, deficient. A good mother is one who is home whenever the child is home. The same analysis does not, of course, apply to fathers. (May we presume that fathers are still more free to display family photographs?) The recent national hysteria when New York Mets player Daniel Murphy missed two games to be with his wife at the cesarean birth of their son shows that in the United States the subtext remains: real men do not put fatherhood first.
At a time when so much in our lives is unrecognizable if we watch film footage from 50 years ago, the manner of dress, communication, transportation, food consumption, social norms of “good mothering” seem based on traditional concepts from a half century ago. Evidence suggests many sources of love for a child only benefit if reliable, kind and genuine. Studies supportive of pre-kindergarten socialization and education are discounted. The needs of the mother and family, economically and otherwise, are not part of the equation.
The “cultural schizophrenia” about employed mothers is not limited to the United States. It affects high ranking officials as well as lower paid workers internationally. The double messages which assail families undermine our ability to find comfort and satisfaction in either our work or our home lives. Some suggest that the narrative of the “perfect mom” who can “do it all” converts motherhood into a never-ending exercise in “measuring up” for too many women who do not embrace the individual right to define a unique pattern of family organization.
Technology is intended enhances the effect of the media on our lives. Clinton and Lagarde laughed at Friedman’s question. But for many women working inside the technology industry, sexism is no laughing matter. It is rancid, forcing them to exit the field.
If women who work in the industry responsible for so many of the images and messages which create cultural expectations are alienated and disappointed, it appears the time has arrived to begin again assertively addressing issues of equality.
This week, congress will yet again be asked to address the question of equal pay for women.
Title VII of the Civil Right Act came to be applied to women as a result of what one would call bad karma. A segregationist, opposed to Civil Rights for African Americans, added the word “sex” to the legislation believing it would ensure defeat. The joke was on him.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963. was passed as a means to stop the continuing advance of the Equal Rights Amendment. It is unclear who bore the brunt of that joke. The 1963 act proved largely ineffectual. Our nation of laws has never stated its female citizens are the equal of men.
Fifty one years later, equal pay remains on the political agenda. A recent study confirms a significant gender wage gap. That earning divide remains deeply affected by race and ethnicity with Asian American women reaching salaries most equal to males, white women in second place.
If the current legislation moves forward, it bears monitoring and advocacy. Women must be watchful that there is not a hidden political agenda as there was in times past. In addition, legislation without enforcement is meaningless.
The climate of politics is quite uncertain for women.
Analysts of the landmark decision of the conservative Roberts led Supreme Court on April 2, 2014, McCutcheon vs. FEC, caution that future political campaigns may be dominated by male mega-donors. Female political candidates in the United States successfully navigated previous campaign contribution laws. It remains to be seen whether the McCutcheon decision shackles further female political advancement.
Which coffers garner the unlimited new coins tossed into politics post McCutcheon is yet unknown.
Only a tiny fragment of the total adult US population contributes $200.00 or more to political campaigns. Substantially rarer is the individual contributor of larger sums. Broadly defined, “business” contributes more money and more often compared to labor or unaffiliated donors. Strikingly, incumbents amass more than five times as much money as their challengers, on average, in contested races. Monies are strategically bestowed upon candidates or campaigns based on an over-arching agenda. For example, in 2013, the top ten most expensive senate races included Arkansas. Georgia, Delaware, Kentucky, New Jersey and Colorado.
If those with the most money win, if, post McCutcheon, cash is able to craft speech successfully, whatever advances women have made since the days of double standard, office decor rules may be at risk. No matter how out of touch, dreamers of a Donna Reed style America may inspire the law of the future.
Fifty years after the deception of offering an equal pay law to thwart an equal rights amendment, women in the United States in all classes and racial groups contain the energy and means to divert the conversation from victimhood to empowerment. We have traveled the same road, watching the same scenery for too long. But this is the cycle of deep and meaningful social change.
“Now, here, you see it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place,
If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”(The Queen)
Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass