It is spring where I live which means there is snow on the ground and several more inches threatening this week. This time last year it was 80 degrees and sunny. Two weeks ago it was 65 degrees and sunny. Mother Nature is obviously menopausal.

As I drove my daughter to school she and the car pool kids were complaining about the weather because its almost spring break etc, etc, etc. I told them I remembered many an Easter Sunday with snow on the ground when I was a kid. Part of that is the magical liturgical calendar, which I am sure is calculated in a sub-basement of the Vatican using the phases of the moon and cast chicken bones, and part is global warming which causes the lake effect snow by us.

When I was a kid every Easter we would get a new dress, hat, gloves and Patten leather shoes for church. Invariably the dress was made out of some sheer material with cap sleeves guaranteed to leave you with goose bumps the whole day. Even the leg wear was thin – ankle socks with lace rather than tights.

My brothers on the other hand got a pair of dress pants, long sleeve button shirt, jacket and tie. They were warm, we were cold. And so began the lessons of women needing to suffer to look beautiful.

As I was relating the unfairness of the Easter clothing to my captive car pool audience I remembered the purse we would make in Girl Scouts every year. First we would spend several meetings crocheting a square. The square would then be made into a tube by lacing a piece of ribbon along two edges, with another ribbon laced through the top to create a drawstring. We would then cut images out of magazines and decoupage them them to plastic margarine tubs. Once the tub was sufficiently decorated and dry, we would punch holes around the edge and use another ribbon to lace the crocheted tube to the tub.

Found this on Etsy. Mine never looked this good.

Needless to say the kids in the car thought this was hilarious. I tried to explain that it was the 70’s and we decoupaged everything, but I guess you had to be there. I just found the instructions for Margarine Tub Purse in the 1972 edition of a “Polly’s Pointers” column. I was not the only one subjected to this craftiness!

This endless “craft project” produced what was now called a purse, intended to be used for church on Easter Sunday. A purse just big enough for some folded up Kleenex, some money for the collection plate, and a lip smacker. Bonne Bell Lip Smackers was a home town company and a big craze for a while. Originally they were as big as glue sticks & with a hook and a cord so you could wear it around your neck. Orange Crush, 7-Up and Strawberry were my favorites.

The smell of Spring.

I am predicting the tag I will use the most on this blog during the next four years will be GOPfail.

The expired Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is back in the news cycle. The objections around VAWA are as political and idiotic as the defeat of the UN disability treaty back in December.

Seems the Senate hopes to get greater House support now that they removed the provision to protect illegal-immigrant women suffering from domestic violence or sexual abuse by granting them additional visas. However, Republicans also object to including language that prohibits discrimination against LGBT folks.

I am continually disappointed that laws and protections designed to normalize treatment of all humans in the US are routinely undermined. I fail to see how condemning domestic violence in the LGBT community can be perceived as supporting or encouraging “the gay agenda.” Then again I fail to understand a lot of the GOP platform.

I am re-posting an experience I had with a black eye last year. It speaks to many of the issues that come up in these “There but for the grace of God” moments.

12 March 2012 – Black Eye

I have a black eye.

I woke up the other morning with a shiner like I caught a softball with my nose. No trauma, no injury, no logical explanation. I went to see an internist who had no idea what it was, who sent me to an ophthalmologist who had no idea what it was.

After extensive questioning they could tell me what it wasn’t – it wasn’t a sinus infection, an “allergy shiner”, or related to vision, optic nerve or glaucoma. Nor was it related to any vitamins or medicine I take. They also asked if there was any domestic violence in my home. There is no violence in my home and I told them so, but I also said I appreciated that they asked.

This has been an odd experience for me, and hard on my husband to know that strangers think he hit me. Even though he doesn’t know them, and isn’t with me every moment, he knows the world has judged him. Reactions have been interesting. Some women glance at my face and look away. Some stare fixedly. Some see the black eye and then give me a dismissive once over. People seem to be creating a story about how I got a black eye, yet no one asked me how I got it.

Why wouldn’t anyone say anything? I bet the majority of look-away-quickly people assumed my husband hit me. And maybe the long stares wanted to to see if I “had work done”. The once-over folks felt judgmental – like I must be someone who “allows themselves to be hit”.

While the assumption makes me uncomfortable, I would have been amazed if any stranger (or acquaintances like women at my gym) had asked about my eye or even said “I hope you are OK.” But so far there has been four days of silence.

I remember when my one sister was living with her (physically and mentally) abusive husband. I talked to people at the local domestic violence shelter and found out what to say and how to say it. “You do not deserve this. It is not your fault. He does not have the right to hurt you or make you feel bad. I will help you if you chose to leave.”

It took almost fifteen years for her to separate from him as she left and went back to him a dozen times.

I started to wonder what I would say if I saw someone with a black eye. Today. In my current crunchy, suburban life where things like that aren’t supposed to happen. But they do. We know women (and some men) are physically and emotionally abused everyday. The statistics are awful – One in four women and one in nine men are physically abused by an intimate partner during their lives.

We need to ask ourselves tough questions. ‘What would I say and how would I say it?’ And ‘When is it my responsibility to say something?’ Or more importantly, why isn’t it everyone’s business to end domestic violence?

Sometimes labels are a drag, like when it allows someone to reduce you to a single characteristic, and sometimes they are useful, like when a single word can convey your world view.

I am a Feminist. Its a regular tag on this blog. I have been, and always will be, adamant and unashamed of using the word feminist to describe myself. You get reactions of course. The most prosaic being that I must be a lesbian, and the most ludicrous being the women who respond by saying “Oh I’m not a feminist.”

I can almost understand and forgive this if the woman is under 21. Usually at that age you still think the world is fair and that your own hard work and merit levels the playing field. Maybe they don’t know women’s history (its a non-starter in our school system no matter how much I agitate), or maybe they haven’t experienced any gender based discrimination, I mean we are all equal now right? Most likely they just don’t know what it means.

Synonyms, which they are likely to be familiar with, include: Bitch, Feminazi, Ballbuster, Man-Hater, Lesbian, Dyke. Accompanying adjectives like ugly, shrill and humorless increase the need to for the average woman to distance herself from the label At All Costs.

But we still haven’t talked about the definition. Being a Feminist, in its simplest form that an 8-year old could understand, means that you believe that women are entitled to equal political, social and economic rights. Fair should not be dictated by sex organs. 

I propose an experiment: Try telling a group of third grade girls they only gets 3/4 of the candy that the boys get because they are girls and see what happens. I predict girls will shout NO FAIR! and the boys will be split between those thinking “Cool!” and those asking “Why?” 

Because gender based behaviors start at birth, we can ignore the results as they play out around us. We can pretend that inequality is not gender based until we are adults. Once you are an adult, it is harder to ignore. I continue to wonder why anyone says they are not a Feminist. Answer these questions:

  • Do you think women should have the same political rights as men? 
    • Should women be allowed to vote and hold public office? 
    • Should women be allowed to sit on juries and serve as judges? 
    • Should women be allowed to make laws?
  • Do you think women should not have the same economic rights as men? 
    • Should women be paid the same amount for doing the same job as a man? 
    • Should women be allowed to apply for jobs if they are qualified?  
    • Should women be allowed to own and inherit property?
  • Do you think women should have the same social rights as men? 
    • Should women be allowed to attend colleges and universities and study what they wish?
    • Should a woman be allowed to file for divorce from her husband? 
    • Should a woman be allowed to prosecute her abusive husband? 
    • Should women be allowed to have custody of their children? 
    • Should a woman be allowed to make decisions about her reproductive health (using birth control, when to have children, having an abortion, being sterilized)?  

If you answered yes to any of the above, congratulations, you are a Feminist. Don’t be afraid to use the label. I would bet 8 out of 10 people would end up being feminists if you ask them the yes/no questions above without using the label.

I was leading a discussion of a group of professional women about time management and work/life integration strategies and someone said something I had not heard before. This doesn’t happen often.

One woman, whose husband and child live 8 hours away because they could not find positions in the same city, said she has been put under even more pressure to be productive because “a woman without children doesn’t have any responsibilities.” (I will explore the cruel depth of that insult another day.) The pressure, she said, was coming from her supervisor, her mentor, her husband and her mother. There may have been others but that’s all I remember.

Seems everyone felt she was living the single life and should work 18 hour days to make the most of this gift she was given. And if she was not working 18 hour days she was being ungrateful about the sacrifice her husband and child were making. The result was that she never feels she is working enough, is wracked with guilt for stopping to eat or sleep and looks like she is hovering on the edge of a physical and/or mental collapse.

There was very little anyone could do for her in the limited amount of time we were together, but I touched on few points that I hope helped.

First, I always use the term work/life integration because balance implies equity or somehow tracking how much you put in the home bucket and how much in the work bucket. The first problem is that there are more than two buckets as most folks would also like to spend time with friends, doing service in their community, participating in religion and maybe doing something by themselves once in a while. When someone says work life balance they usually mean a nuclear family and a job, but that is narrow definition of life. Integration is less precarious and leaves some mental room for mixing instead of score keeping. Helping women understand that striving for balance can undermine enjoyment is a recurring theme.

Secondly, the Eleanor Roosevelt pearl “No one makes you feel inferior without your consent”. And that means you. Part of the problem with work life issues is that we are often willing to believe that others have succeeded where we have failed. Another scale where we can come up short. I call this the Bad Mommy syndrome in the realm I work in.  Here her peers were willing to share their disastrous attempts at balance and their ongoing, and sometimes hilarious, failures at taming the Bad Mommy syndrome and finally convinced her that she was not alone. Cathartic all around.

The last thought I left her with that turned into a bit of a back and forth as she challenged me, was that ultimately it all comes down to her deciding to be Be Here Now. If she is working, just work and don’t think of anything else. If she is writing just write, if she is spending time with her child, do only that. Commit to what she is doing and stop wasting energy on guilt.

Here and now is the easiest concept to talk about and the hardest to practice. It is counter to the multi-tasking world we live in, but putting your attention fully on one task at hand can make you feel you have actually accomplished something. How many days do you leave work thinking you didn’t get anything done? Its hard. But it is one way this woman might address her rampaging guilt and sometime paralysis.

The good news was at the end of the session the exhausted woman said she was happy that taking the time to attend the session didn’t make her feel worse about what she should have been doing. I’m going to count that as progress on her behalf.

Taking my own medicine I committed fully to this blog post for 30 minutes, I have spell/grammar checked and am now publishing without guilt. There are probably typos, but at least there is no guilt.

As it gets harder and harder to cobble together the time I need to put coherent thoughts in a blog post I am reminded of what a friend says about her writing – “I write a blog post every day in my head.” From head to page (or post) can be a big leap some days. So my new tag line is “Sent from my head, please pardon any typos.”

I was recently in a group of women who were talking about how women constantly judge each other. I could have pointed out that we should substitute “humans” for women, because men judge themselves and each other as well, but that would have derailed the topic. Another time.

People brought up how we judge how other women raise their children, or where they send them to to school, or if they are a stay-at-home mom, or a working mom. This landscape is so familiar that someone piped up immediately “As if a stay-at-home-mom is not a working mom!” The problem, an older woman postulated, is that women are their own worst enemy, tearing each other down when they should be supporting each other.

Now I am all for sisterhood, but that just sounded like one more freakin thing to add to my to-do list. Maybe I was just tired. Luckily someone else raised the level of discourse away from its-our-own-damn-fault to how women being unsure of their choices allows them to be more manipulable by society, media etc. The conversation swirled for a while but what caught my attention was someone naively asking, “How do we make it safe for women to talk about topics without judgment?”

The context for this was how do we talk publicly about abortion so that it is de-stigmatized. A simplistic answer was offered: “Wear a button that says I live in a glass house and I don’t throw stones.” I’m thinking I would not be inclined to talk about the weather to someone wearing that button, let alone abortion.

The question of safety included an unacknowledged shift from the visible to the invisible. We can judge a woman’s choices in child rearing and work because they are visible, we can only judge her choice to have an abortion if it is revealed. Hence the de-stigmatization efforts. I wholeheartedly agree having an abortion is nothing to be ashamed of, and most women experience relief rather than shame. So what else is behind the silence? I think we are back at judgment.

Judgment influences behavior because of its complexity. Whether it is internally or externally imposed it can be a verdict (You are a bad person), or an opinion (You are that kind of person), or a statement (This is who I am). We make choices every day about what we make visible because we know we are judged. Revealing information is like pouring Kool-Aid into water –  it can’t be unmixed. So to talk about your abortion in our society calls for either a whole lotta trust or a whole lotta nerve.

As one woman said the fear of judgment is less about her feeling bad about the abortion than about what crap is going to blow back from the other person –  “I don’t feel like dealing with their 92 different feelings about my choice.” Interestingly, as the conversation continued, people revealed other seemingly taboo information kept invisible because of its potential to shape how we will be viewed:

  • I had an abortion and didn’t feel bad (the implication being you should feel bad)
  • I don’t have children because I can’t have children (the implication being you are a failed woman without children)
  • I don’t want children (see above)
  • I am an atheist (too many implications of bad badness to list here)
  • I was sexually molested (the implication being you are a victim)

The list could go on and on, especially around less political but still volatile issues like “I slept with a married man.” How many currently married suburban women do you know that will reveal that to their currently married friends?

I think we all live in glass houses and we all throw stones. So to the question, “How do we make it safe for women to talk about topics without judgment?”, my answer is we need to find ways to build trust into casual friendships so the invisible can be visible. Invisible parts revealed are not a burden, they are the bits that turn a casual friend into a true friend. So we need to trust first, reveal first. I need to trust first. Hmmm. Lot more to think about.

I work with a lot of highly accomplished women scientists who are invested in promoting gender equity in some traditionally male dominated areas. So I often hear lectures about new research, or meta-analysis of old research, searching for the elusive, persuasive evidence that

a) women and men are equally capable intellectually,
b) that women continue to experience discrimination in myriad forms, and
c) we should do something about it.

Almost all of these are accompanied by “d” the what and how to do it, but its easy to ignore that when you get hung up on “a”. There is a point where some women will get uncomfortable in these discussions and its usually around motherhood. This is a very stylized skirmish in the Mommy Wars that is often akin to Hari Kari.

Recently I was at a talk where the speaker was discussing the history of marriage (why this was the topic for a science crowd is too convoluted to go into) and how women’s work became almost exclusively house & child related and then devalued. How we define traditional marriage (and why) became secondary to the heated discussion around parenting choices.

The evidence that the stay-at-home mom was a phenomena limited to the 1945 – 1970 “boomer” years and TV reruns did nothing to reduce the outpouring of mommy guilt and frustration.

A lot of the women in the audience were “firsts” – first woman to attend that university, first to get that degree, first female in that department – and so on. I categorize them (not to their faces) as The Tough Old Broads. These are women who lived their lives as “Super-Women” with a marriage, a kid, a successful career and four hours of sleep a night for the last 30 years.

The 50 and under crowd was a mixed bag of married and unmarried (mostly with children), second-wave feminists, and some who don’t use the F-word about themselves.

One woman, a very senior administrator & researcher, described how she was held hostage (my words not hers) by her two children who refused to eat any food she did not prepare from scratch. She even hired a chef service for a while and they would not eat the meals.

Now I would have been very sad to watch those children get scurvy and starve to death, but I can’t imagine the depth of guilt that allowed her to put up with that.

Other women joked about husbands who didn’t know how to pack a lunch or run a washing machine, comments you often hear from working women. A few were outraged that the term “working mother” still existed when “working dad” never has.

One or two trotted out their Utopian same sex relationships where all child care and housework was split 50/50. I didn’t buy that for a minute – even the best relationship would be 60/40 most days and those are ever shifting numbers in either direction IMHO.

The real drag was that there was so much “Bad Mommy” vibe even in this rarefied atmosphere where everyone knows (intellectually at least) that we have a societal problem rather than a personal problem when it comes to parenting and work. There was such undercurrent of guilt over sacrifices made or not made as people compared choices and actions, but at least it exposed the lie that everyone but you has it all together.

When do we collectively give up the June Cleaver model and define “Good Mommy” on our own terms? I am as guilty as the next person about setting ridiculous standards and self-flagellating over what I “should” be doing. There has to be some middle ground between Roseanne, June Cleaver and the  24-hour Enjoli woman.

I jokingly made a logic model to capture my theory of parenting. Maybe I should work on a Mommy Logic Model next.  As always suggestions welcome.

My daughter was describing a friend of hers and at the end of the rambly convoluted story she said, “but sometimes she can be a bitch. Oops, I guess thats bad, I shouldn’t say that.”

I told her not to use that word around me because it is imprecise. My best explanation without making a word “bad”.

Bitch is such a crappy, short-hand term for whatever someone doesn’t like about some woman or girl. It can be used to say she is nasty, mean, sharp, intolerant, rude and/or unreasonable. Bitch as a pejorative is often used by folks who don’t know what pejorative means, but not exclusively. It is a word that crosses socio-economic and gender lines.

Bitch can mean aggressive, powerful, pushy, intimidating. ambitious and just plain “out of line” in a male dominated world. Fairly easy to see why this irritates me, but not so easy to explain to a 12-year old without giving a “Women’s Studies 101” lecture.

Still. My daughter has a better vocabulary than that. And I expect her to find a way to use it. Same thing goes for the “Boys are dumb” comments she and her friends sometimes make. Those words don’t tell a story no matter how much T-Shirt makers insist that putting boys down, raises girls up. Insults are not power.

Fine line to ride here trying to teach my kid to not embrace casual sexism, racism, elitism or any other “-ism”, without her making her (or me) sound righteous.

That said, having had “Bitch” flung at me more than a few times, I find it unacceptable coming out of the mouth of my daughter.

Brings out my right hook(s) “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation and oppression” and obviously we are not there yet.