Down the yellow brick road after almost forty years

cropped-6-13-14.jpgIt does not take much to make us realize what fools we are, but

the little it takes is long in coming.

Flannery O’Connor

Some  days, green times of the early seventies filter through my memory and energize me with a subtle hopefulness.  It was after all, and as they say, a time of innocence.

For over a hundred years our voices had been unwelcome, our presence banned.   None of our ideas were thought to ennoble this  pleasant urban space. Now, the breath of change, crisp and fresh,  gave life to new friendship all around the campus.  

Willowy, long-haired women in denim skirts which reached the ground or those  in peasant garb or  the ones with shaggy hair dressed in traditional worker blues picnicked in the sun.  Books buttressing shoulders or balancing long sheets of ink filled paper, they sidelined sandwiches half-eaten, collected  yogurt cups on the felt-like lawn.  Miniskirts and mustaches  passed, silent or sneering, either way unnoticed as the gathered women vowed to meet again for dinner on Wednesday night to share, then, a more personal conversation.

Elsewhere, alcohol and drugs were expanding minds.  We adventured  landscapes new and old,  together and separately.  And though it was not always sunshine, it remained mostly green, as we became the star-gazer, the professor, the business woman, the writer, the teacher, and the one who disappeared. Nor can we forget, the lawyer, the one who was made duty bound to make the change for our daughters and their daughters. We thought, then,”if women had the power…” We believed better worlds lay down the yellow brick road. 

Young women dreaming, working hard, studying, achieving, so serious. Perched precariously, preparing for the revolutionary times that were ours to make and to finesse with fine ideas and our own fire.

But it became a summer of sweet content, mainly.

We became a writer and a star-gazer turned corporate traveler, a professor and two lawyers. Life gave  husbands, wives, houses, children, joys, sorrows and to one an early death. With our sisters in the same professions or in book clubs, we met at power lunches, for power walks, power runs for sister candidates.  We got older, looking younger than previous generations, with  expensive lotions, female surgeons and women’s fitness routines. We styled our long hair, recycled peasant dresses, shrunk the denim.

As do our sisters of the same color, class and education, we  live in such comfort our mothers dreamt of for the important and the wealthy. Many  mothers, who showed us more than we will ever comprehend about life, age in “assisted living” placements.  Our generation prides itself on our deep, rich, barrier breaking sensibilities.

 Our urban campus today, a testament: “if you let them in they shall seize it all. ”  Women outnumber men by three to one.  The institute  of learning which channeled  leaders to high places in the city, now feeds nurses to the clinics. No less achieved. More?

But, do the women still picnic on the green, grasping a new world order?  What of women vanished into that summer of content?

Deep hued times and even a new century,  women rise with matured aspirations.  Institutions defiantly departed now greet the daughters nonchalantly. Doctors and lawyers and professors, women are not uncommon.  Justice, equality and power remain absent, but inky notes on picnic papers  are quaint  relics of past hopes and philosophies.

The real revolution was women talking.  Women reaching out to women and listening to what was said.  Wanting to know what the other thought, felt, experienced, understood, expressed.  Certainly, this was a way of understanding self, narcissistic.  But it was also, a way of reaching out into the world.  Power, connection, caring.  

As are  blithe gatherings on the green, the conviviality for a cause vanished quickly in the summer. “Sisterhood” soon  shrouded with a bruising cloth.

We used to say the political is personal, the personal, political.

Some us always listened to each other, perhaps because these were the only sisters whose care we had ever known.  In that circle of understanding, learning, justice, connection, but validation above all.  Naively seeing worldly circles equal, these women headed straight to painful falls.

Some of us, unaware we were so vulnerable.  That attachment to a person and a cause would fray so quickly.  “That isn’t the way I see it, I see it differently.  There are extremists on every issue, in every time.”

Some of us,so easily intoxicated, refusing treatment, in denial our whole life long.  For  some, the drug, meanness,  the silent, silken   sway, enchanting, to see the others fall down in the path.  The bitter taste, but men have drunk this brew through ages, so many blends. We drink with gusto.Our right.  Our turn.

We , the bully, the bureaucrat, the shooter,the soldier,now as well.

” and so it goes,” Secretary Hillary Clinton  may refuse to trash Sarah Palin  just because she is asked to do so. But, Terry Gross will  try to trash  Secretary  Clinton  merely to show she can.

The writer will trash the business executive,traveling around the world.  Not in the open, with the concrete thing, which can be seen and defended. But behind the curtains, to some of the others, some words spoken.  The meaning clear, or not so clear, for the executive must believe she herself  at fault.

The director of the community group will trash the  popular professor.  The professor, too kind, too supportive, or, perhaps, presents another defect.  Is she a stand out member, too assertive, too many ideas?  The emails and memos circulate. There are missed meetings, about which the professor was not called. She will later scramble to trace events, as if she is researching her dissertation: who has been told; what has been said; when did this start; what is happening? Falling into a well of darkness, unsure of the beginning or the end.

Trashing is crazymaking.  Conflict announced as conflict avoidance.  Sudden, the unanticipated cold steel apprehended in the midst of warm conversation.

Is this the old, old pattern from years ago, or a dynamic by a newer catchy name: the bully, the frenemy.

Is this just what we did in school when they said that boys were tough but girls were catty?

Oh, has the world changed at all in forty years?

On the TV after another school shooting, another protest.  This time the grandmothers are all marching with colored signs outside the school.  They blame the bullies, they blame the videos and they blame the gun laws.  As I watch them, I cannot hep wonder how they communicate.

The statehouse steps erupt in shouts and angry protest as the car speeds away.  The governor again declares not all citizens have equal rights. At the front, clenched fists are pounding the humid air, relentless.  To the right, a couple embraces, and the woman cries on her partner’s breast.

The small courtroom empties to the lot in the shopping center.  The  man-child marches to his car, the woman-child to hers.  Because he is a soldier, his drunken fists have been forgiven. What will those fists do in three months time in the desert sands of Afghanistan?

…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!

Lewis Carroll

       

http://www.blogsbywomen.org/

Ban Bossy? Think again!

 

cropped-cropped-girls_in_the_garden_oil_c-1906_frank_weston_benson2.jpgIt appears to be that some people attract controversy as metal rods attract lightning.

Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, appears to be one such person. The response to her March 8, 2014 Wall Street Journal Op Ed co-authored with Anna Maria Chavez, Girls Scouts USA, CEO has been vigorous. Ms. Chavez and Ms. Sandberg advocate banning the word “bossy” as applied to girls through a pledge campaign and to engage in other activities explained on a website banbossy.com.  These leaders reach into their own history and into the etymology and semantics of the word bossy.  Their conclusion is that this “B” word heard so often on the childhood play yard, in the classroom, and even in the Boardroom, Courtroom, or Senate Chamber is a social signifier.  It is a word which connotes deeply rooted negative gender stereotypes of women who exhibit competent leadership skills.  A bossy man is to be admired as a leader.  A bossy woman, no matter how successful, is somehow unlikable. A boy or man in charge is acceptable.  A girl or woman who is not kind and nurturing is deficient. Girls suffer, we are told, from these stereotypes, lose confidence, and fail to thrive in the race to the top.

I have no reason to disagree.

In my once male dominated profession of law, it was a good day if the “B” word directed toward me or a female colleague was “bossy.” Each of us have reached into our childhoods and told tales of how we were discouraged by the language of gender stereotypes. Each of us observed that a male lawyer who was a vigorous advocate was “able counsel” or something more superlative.  A woman conducting herself in an identical fashion was likely to be many things, perhaps “bossy” would again be the kindest.

Nor do I diminish the significance of the observations and goals of banbossy.com.  Reinforcing a child’s self esteem is crucial .

Chavez and Sandberg suggest that being bossy can help us live fulfilled lives:” The lesson to children, and to the parents and teachers who raise and nurture them, should be that there is pride in being opinionated, motivated and motivating—that is, bossy.”  (March 8, 2014 Wall Street Journal Op Ed).

My question is more basic.  Why do we need anyone to be bossy?  Motivated, Motivating, Opinionated…..

The starting point in the argument of “Ban Bossy” (the website indicates that this is not a first amendment issue: there is no literal request to abolish a word) accepts the current definitions of “success” of the upper middle class (or higher), highly and well-educated, corporate, largely white, world. The little girl labeled bossy raises her hand too much, tells her friends how to complete the project, seeks out the highest class office. She is the kid who joins all the clubs, has more time for events than for friends, she gets the best grades,  and often she is “good” at everything, from music to sports.   She grows up to be Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton. When she is a known world leader, she is not called bossy; she is called cold, unfeeling or mean, and nasty.

What if we changed not merely the word, we changed the narrative.  The child who gets the highest score on the math test or read the most books over the summer is a success.  But the child who exhibits such emotional intelligence that at lunch she sits next to the little boy who doesn’t speak much English is also a success.  The girl who stands next to the child whom the class bully just disparaged is a success too.  And the one who built a bird house from twigs in the yard is counted among the winners.

If the narrative is altered to include a more diverse vision of “success,” diversity in “motivation” and in methods to motivate others might readily follow.  An Ivy League level education is no longer the pre-requisite to being a “success” in the chosen profession.  Columbia does not even have a Carpentry Department!  When the narrative changes and the means to motivate change, perhaps, the dialogue can also be altered.  “Being opinionated” might no longer be of such high value.  Listening skills, engaging in a meaningful dialogue which moves participants forward might become paramount.

Maybe I am an idealist.  I remind myself of a young woman I knew well when she was me in Women Studies Classes in the 70’s.I thought by now an equal society would have evolved.  Banning words was not a strategy I recall considering.

We anticipated a future wherein boardrooms, courtrooms and senate chambers were open to us.  We even believed a woman would be elected US president.  We considered a future wherein the choice to become a cook or a weaver or a teacher would command financial and social respect.  We read the futuristic novels of feminism’s “first wave” and believed that under our watch child care providers would garner wages which truly reflect the importance of the work performed, the provision of healthy food would be honored, the work of the homemaker would be valid.

Most critically, as our political consciousness grew, many of us began to prefer the attribution “feminist humanist.”  We professed freedom for women necessarily required the same for men. The evisceration of gender stereotypes, or so the argument proceeded, would mean that women could embrace power and men could embrace emotion. In a practical fashion, we sought equal work and life partnerships.  We marched into parenthood armed with the determination that we would talk with our sons about their dreams and feelings and bring our daughters to sports events and political rallies.  Even better, we would seek out the individuality in each of our children and cultivate that precious gift as best we could  regardless of gender.

Decades on, the world is much changed, in many respects to the detriment of the economic, social and political status of women in the US. The ban bossy campaign is started.

Perhaps, the study of conflict resolution and bully prevention strategies has led me to hopes which amplify  earlier ideas as to how to reach  a more equal society in terms of gender.  Banning words is still not a strategy.

Achieving social justice on a real level for women, girls, men or boys demands more than caution with words.

If we continue drowning our daughters from the earliest stages in marketed images of “perfection,” the anorexic, sexualized teen, the air-brushed, perfectly coiffed Kate-Middleton clone mom, words, no matter how pernicious, count little in the construction of gendered stereotypes.  If our films persist in featuring suicidal astronauts or depressive narcissists as leading role models for women even when women of wealth are acquiring a greater voice in what movies are being produced, we must look to new forums.

If these same vehicles persuade our boys that violence and vulgarity are hallmarks of manhood, youth will be trapped in an endless cycle of diminished fulfillment.  If our role models for male success continue to be styled as “tough on the outside, tough on the inside,” men will struggle within roles which inhibit most, limit many and completey exclude more than a few.

So long as we persist in defining our world as full of “winners” and “losers”, our schools will instill confidence in some and a sense of inferiority in others.  So long as we accept a society in which it is a norm that some children will go to bed hungry and some seniors will freeze to death impoverished on city streets, intolerance is almost a necessary aspect of our culture.  If we equate being “opinionated” with leadership we are failing to teach essential listening skills which alone offer us access to understanding.  Understanding the point of view of the other is the only true benchmark of the kind of growth which allows for leadership.  As we see in the world around us, one can easily bark at and boss the converted and lead them into an impasse.  Progress and growth demand more.

Chavez and Sandberg must be applauded for identifying issues which must be addressed.  They may be commended for developing a strategy.  If they are the leaders they contend they are they must continue thinking.

Initially posted at BeaconResolution.com