I actually had to stop watching Mad Men after the first episode. After living through the era, I found it too painful to endure it again, even ironically and vicariously.
To illustrate how bad it was, before passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1974, the Help Wanted ads in the local paper came in two varieties – Help Wanted-Men and Help Wanted-Women, with all the good jobs segregated in one place for men only. Even when the categories changed, you knew without asking which jobs were for which sex.
In 1969, an acquaintance who graduated second from her law school in Detroit told me that she had sent out more than a hundred resumes and received five job offers – all for jobs as a legal secretary, not one as a lawyer. It was an era when my boss at Consumers Power Company could demand that I accompany her to the bathroom for a “girdle check,” because someone complained that I was so jiggly that I must not be wearing a girdle and hose.
Yet the sad fact is that I feel that I am being forced to relive the Fifties and Sixties all over again today. We all are.
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum wants us pregnant, if not barefoot. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and even libertarian Ron Paul are all pro-life. State legislatures dominated by Republicans are ramming through new laws designed to shame women who try to exercise their Constitutional right to end an unwanted pregnancy, treating them as if they are too dim to know their own minds.
These new laws typically throw up roadblocks and obstacles such as requiring transvaginal ultrasounds that are tantamount to state-sanctioned rape. If you want to know what it feels like for women to pay for unwanted and unneeded sonograms, take a moment to read Carolyn Jones’ poignant account of what she had to go through in Texas. At one point, a sympathetic nurse turned up the radio so that the sobbing Mrs. Jones did not have to hear the doctor’s mandated words.
Misogyny is now more acceptable than racism. Rush Limbaugh was forced out of ESPN and from any chance of owning a football team franchise because of some racially charged statements he made during his brief career as a TV sports commentator. Yet he continues to have a radio platform that allows him to rant against the “feminazis.” He lost advertisers for calling a young woman a slut and a prostitute who wants us to pay for her having sex, but he stays on the air after spewing terms that are arguably as derogatory toward women as the n-word is to blacks.
Rep. Jim (R-Wisconin) Sensenbrenner recently talked openly about First Lady Michelle Obama’s “big butt.” Sen. Harry (D-Colorado) Reid called fellow Democrat Sen. Kristen (D-New York) Gillibrand “the hottest member of the Senate” as if that’s a compliment. (Hey, just laugh it off, sweetie.)
Even progressive hero Jon Stewart reserves the word “douche” as the worst opprobrium he can hurl at a fellow male. Stewart is too enlightened to say anything as politically incorrect as “how gay,” but douche and douchebag pass muster without any hesitation?
The late Shirley (D-New York) Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress. In 1972, she also became the first African American and first female to seek to become her party’s nomination for the presidency. “Of my two ‘handicaps’ being female put more obstacles in my path than being black,” she said, and it sadly holds true today.
I am glad to see other beleaguered groups making significant strides. We have our first African American president. States across the country are embracing marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. But I am reminded that the Equal Rights Amendment for women failed, and periodic efforts to revive it go nowhere.
I am old enough to remember how conservative women like Phyllis Schlafly and fundamentalist religious groups succeeded in killing off the ERA that would have enshrined women’s equality in the Constitution by persuading enough other women to believe that we didn’t need it. The few surviving suffragettes and the growing numbers of second-wave feminists tried to fight back, but even silly claims such as the one that the ERA would require that all bathrooms would become unisex were accepted by many at face value.
Schlafly herself not only profited from the freedom others had earned for her but she also made her fortune by throwing other women’s rights over the side. “Men should stop treating feminists like ladies, and instead treat them like the men they say they want to be,” she said..
Women often live up to the argument that they are their own worst enemies when our sisters sell us out. We have not found the right language to challenge or convert them. Adding insult to injury, even our disputes and differences of opinion are portrayed as “catfights” between unattractive bra-burning feminists on one side and male-identified sellouts on the other.
Given my biases, I may not have been the best candidate to sit on a panel to respond to the documentary Miss Representation (official trailer above) as part of this year’s Neal Shine Ethics hosted offered by Michigan State University’s School of Journalism. Jennifer Siebel Newsom made the film to show us how the media routinely objectifies women, eroding not just their self-esteem but their political power and agency within the culture. No matter whether women are reporting the news or are covered by it, the idea of the young, hyper-sexualized female dominates, as it does in the ads that surround the “serious” content.For me, the issues are personal. I earned my right to comment the hard way, by losing my stepdaughter Kim in part because of our failure to provide young women a healthy environment growing up. I sincerely believe that the relentless messages our culture sends to young girls are so toxic that they can kill. “Little Kimmy” grew up imbibing these poisons, and I believe that it part of why she became bulimic and alcoholic and died of a bleeding brain at 34. I took the opportunity during the panel to show part of the Kimmy site, to talk about how the consequences of failing to deal with the problem of objectifying women means that more young women will die.
Statistics gathered by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health seven million women and one million men suffer from eating disorders. That’s two to three percent of all women in the United States. Of those sufferers, 5% to 10% will die within 10 years, 10% to 20% within 20 years.
For me, the toxic images of women in the media are a life-and-death issue. Indeed, the current climate where we see a renewed “war on women” reminds me that I became a journalist in large part because I want to change the world. While there are greater differences within a sex than between them (I suspect Peewee Herman may have more in common with me than Arnold Schwarzenegger), I believe that women, given the chance, can bring something special to the table. Not only do their voices deserve to be heard because of basic fairness, but the problems we face are so serious that I believe they would benefit from including women’s perspectives in their solutions.
I want women playing a significant role in dealing with the foreclosure crisis, with how to regulate banks and the continuing need to create good jobs and make affordable and accessible health care a reality. Watching the fruit trees flowering in March here in Michigan persuades me that women have to be more effective in demanding that we deal with climate change before it’s too late.
Yes, gender is a culturally defined construct, but women, in part because of our unique capacity to give birth to the next generation, deserve to have our voices heard. We are a majority of the people in our society, which means who should expect to fill half or more of the seats at the table when we decide whether corporations or living things matter most. In that context, it seems suicidal to allow the media to continue portraying us as bubble-headed fools, here to pander to and serve those wise male decision-makers with all the answers.
Yet the moment women speak with passion and urgency about the need to do better and to do it fast, we often find ourselves marginalized by men like Limbaugh and women who are too quick to tell us all is well, despite the numbers.
And not only are the numbers are dismal but they are getting worse, not better. For the first time in 30 years, the 2010 election showed a decline in the number of women elected to Congress, down to 17%, which ties us with Turkmenistan at 78th in the world in terms of female representation in the federal government. In 2011, only 12 of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were women, down from 15 a year earlier. This is progress?
And while the numbers matter, adding women’s voices won’t matter much if the only women who allowed at the table are forced to sing the same old tune. I applaud the fact that Indra K. Nooyi is head of Pepsico. But she must be almost as tired of having her name invoked as I am weary of hearing it.
I am sure she enjoys taking home her $16 million a year. But I would be much happier if I knew she was fighting to ensure that other women do not have to settle for making 78 cents on the dollar compared to men. Or that her position translated into leadership on the issue of how the high-fructose corn syrup in her company’s soft drinks is contributing to the astounding rates of obesity and diabetes that are the real reason our health-care costs are out of control.
Participation is part of the battle but so is power and the will to wield it.
During our panel discussion I noted the good news/bad news dilemma when went gain a toehold but do not always change the culture. Yes, it’s good news that Sara Blakely is our first female billionaire entrepreneur – but the bad news is that she did so selling Spanx, a Fifties girdle by another name, a product that preys on women’s insecurities. A fellow panelist was quick to call me a “sexist” for saying so, just as in Glenn Beck conservative circles, African Americans who point out our country’s continuing problems with race are marginalized as the “real racists.” But happy talk alone doesn’t make things better.
Yes, I am happy to learn that in some media markets, women are becoming general managers at local TV stations. But those numbers don’t matter much if those women either do not have the power – or choose not to exercise it – to change the prevailing policies that work against women newscasters. As the movie notes, all too often the local news shows pair dignified white-haired grandfathers paired with sexy women young enough to be their granddaughters. What message does it send to young women in the audience about who in this culture maintains power as they age?
I remember my friend Pat Cuza, a trailblazer among women in Michigan government, saying that landing the seat at the table was only half the battle. Figuring out a way to have your voice heard without men closing ranks against you was the bigger challenge. In our legislatures and our boardrooms, males in the majority set the agenda, while women strategize about how to be heard at all.
After the event, a fellow panelist said that it is as if women are being erased. Another wondered aloud why feminists were unable to capitalize on those initial gains. How sad to learn that the local NOW chapter in Lansing may be on the brink of disbanding, not because the war against women has been won but because not enough young women are joining the cause.
First-wave feminists secured us the right to vote. My generation of so-called second-wave feminists focused on securing our reproductive rights and fighting for workplace equality. Now the question becomes whether third-wave feminism, which focused more on inclusion and diversity, needs to change tactics now that our relatively modest second-wave achievements are increasingly under attack.
During the panel discussion, I talked about the time in 1970 when I was listening to J. P. McCarthy’s mid-afternoon radio show on WJR while driving to the MSU campus to interview someone for the magazine I then worked for. A sociologist from Wayne State University said it would take time for women to make much-needed gains. If memory serves, she said, “It will take at least 10 years, maybe as much as 20 years, for women to become half of the members of Congress and half the people in the corporate boardrooms.”
I was horrified – 10 years? Maybe 20? That long? Yet here we are more than 40 years later and not much closer.
To become militant invites backlash, but to remain polite acquiesces in maintaining the status quo. The American counterparts to the fundamentalist Taliban are relentless in doing everything they can to chip away at women’s rights, so it is high time for thinking women of all ages to band together to fight back. The challenge is for us women to develop a unified and effective voice, and to keep pushing until we do.
My challenge to the younger generation is this. We handed you the torch, but too many of you thought the war was over. You were raised to be good girls who thought you could get ahead by going along. But equality has to mean more than having the “equal right” to put dollar bills in the g-string of male strippers. So no more partying and no more playing nice.
Let’s burn our Spanx and our bras as we march to every Capitol in sight. Women’s History Month should serve as a testament to the importance of remembering that this is a fight we cannot afford to lose, for ourselves and our daughters and our sons.
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