The Pain of Living in a Post-Feminist World

A number of women students just alerted me to Deborah Copaken Kogan’s “My So-called Post-Feminist Life” which recently appeared in the Nation. (http://www.thenation.com/article/173743/my-so-called-post-feminist-life-arts-and-letters). Kogan reveals decades of subtle and not so subtle sex discrimination, leaving her feeling misunderstood, alienated, and questioning her career as a writer. Although in different form, I too feel similarly discouraged. I was too young to have firsthand experience of the women’s liberation movement but I naively believed that feminists of the 1960 and 1970s had broken through so many barriers to equality, that my own career would be smooth sailing. Yet from the time that I entered law school, I have continually confronted sexism and I quickly learned that I was better off keeping as silent as my conscious would allow. Women have a hall pass to the corridors of male power which can be revoked easily should one actually identify, name, and voice their own discrimination. In this post-feminist world to be a feminist is to be labeled angry, humorless, weak, too sensitive, passé, irrelevant, overall a pain. “This was all taken care of decades ago, stop whining, get with the program.”

We are supposed to imagine that structural and institution sexism and racism are relics of the past, a long ago problem that has since been solved. Remnants of discrimination are understood be isolated and personal problems – a mere failure of communication or civility. In our current world, the personal is decidedly not political. If we look around and see few women colleagues well what does that matter? They had their chance. It is just another indication of women’s personal choice not to join or to stay. Such women have chosen to leave the party early. Yet few see that such decisions often mask exhaustion, frustration, and alienation. Were we ever really invited to the party in the first place? Hillary Clinton did it, why can’t you?

Mentoring and The Sounds of Silence

For at least a decade, women’s bar associations, universities, and other institutions have been producing reports trying to explain and rectify the lack of women and minorities in top positions such as partners in law firms or full professors in universities (especially within the sciences, technology, and engineering). Although the actual number of women and minorities within law firms and university faculties is improving only at a snail’s pace, there is consensus regarding how such institutions can attract and retain women and minorities. At least one component of all of these reports is an emphasis on the importance of having a mentor. Yet virtually none of these reports discuss in any detail what it means to be a good mentor or how one becomes a good mentor. In its most dilute form, mentoring means an occasional lunch outside of the office and dozens of internet articles on mentoring are at best trite.

I now find myself a mentor of both students and junior faculty and I am often at a loss in how to be a good mentor. In my twenty-three year career that has spanned being in a private law firm, in-house, and then the university, no one has ever spoken to me about what mentoring means. In those cases where I feel most competent as a mentor my relationships have grown organically over time. I silently and slowly become a mentor. Even more surprising to me is that some of my strongest mentoring relationships are with male students despite the fact that my scholarship focuses on women and gender and many students know me from presentations that I give about women in law school.

There has long been a sense that women are not as good as male mentors yet there is no evidence for this, nor do I even have a way to compare myself to others — men or women. This opinion regarding women mentors is of course a vast over generalization but there may be some tidbits of truth in it. Women, including myself, may feel that they do not have the cultural capital, the connections, or the power that more senior men possess. I sometimes worry that I am short changing the students that I mentor.

I have been fortunate to have had wonderful mentors both men and women but the mentoring relationship is not often publicly visible or even discussed. At times, I had no idea whether someone was mentoring me or whether they were simply doing their job and wished that I would leave them alone. At other times, I looked to people that I thought were mentors who instead saw me as a friend or worse yet made the mistake of interpreting my interest as an indication that I desired a romantic relationship. Looking back on my past, I can now see that some of my professors were offering mentorship but I did not recognize it as such. Even today students reach out to me but I do not know whether they are seeking limited advice or a longer-term relationship. Sometimes I think that a student is seeking a mentor but I never hear from that student again. Have they rejected my mentorship? Have I misinterpreted their intentions or have I somehow conveyed that I was uninterested? At other times, I seem to have lost my own mentors and I harbor a perpetual sense that I have fatally disappointed them. Worse of all I do not know how to discuss any of these questions openly.

Finally: Wide Availability of the Morning-After Pill

The article below is from the New York Times.

A federal judge ruled Friday that the government must make the most common morning-after pill available over the counter for all ages, instead of requiring a prescription for girls 16 and younger. In his ruling, he also accused the federal government of “bad faith” in dealing with the requests to make the pill universally available, and said its actions had been politically motivated.

The decision, on a fraught and politically controversial subject, comes after a decade-long fight over who should have access to the pill and under what circumstances. And it counteracts an unprecedented move by the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, who in 2011 overruled a recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration to make the pill available for all ages without a prescription.

In a decision in a lawsuit filed by advocates, the judge, Edward R. Korman of Federal District Court, ruled that the government’s refusal to lift restrictions on access to the pill was “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.”

Judge Korman ordered the F.D.A. to lift any age and sale restrictions on the pill, Plan B One-Step, and its generic versions, within 30 days.

“More than 12 years have passed since the citizen petition was filed and 8 years since this lawsuit commenced,” the judge wrote. “The F.D.A. has engaged in intolerable delays in processing the petition. Indeed, it could accurately be described as an administrative agency filibuster.”

He added, “The plaintiffs should not be forced to endure, nor should the agency’s misconduct be rewarded by, an exercise that permits the F.D.A. to engage in further delay and obstruction.”

The F.D.A. and the Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the ruling or the judge’s harsh criticisms on Friday morning or to indicate whether the government would file an appeal, saying the decision, which was issued in the Eastern District of New York, was being reviewed. The Justice Department would only say it was reviewing the opinion.

Scientists, including those at the F.D.A., have been recommending unrestricted access for years, as have major medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics. They contend that the restrictions effectively keep many adolescents and younger teenagers from being able to use a safe drug in a timely way to prevent pregnancy, which carries greater safety risks than the morning-after pill.

In 2011, the F.D.A. commissioner, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, issued a statement saying that after rigorous study, it was safe to sell Plan B One-Step over the counter for all ages. But she was overruled by Ms. Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, the first time such a public countermanding had ever occurred.

In her decision, Ms. Sebelius said that Plan B’s manufacturer had failed to study whether the drug was safe for girls as young as 11, about 10 percent of whom are physically able to bear children. But her decision was widely interpreted in a political context because emergency contraception has become an issue in the abortion debate and because allowing freer access to adolescents would prompt critics to accuse the Obama administration of supporting sexual activity for girls of that age. At the time, President Obama supported Ms. Sebelius’s decision, saying, “I will say this, as the father of two daughters: I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine.”

He added: “And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect. And I think most parents would probably feel the same way.”

Plan B was approved in 1999 as a prescription-only product, and in 2001, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a citizens petition for it to be made available over the counter or without a prescription. Scientists, including an expert advisory panel to the F.D.A., gave early support to that request. But top F.D.A. officials rejected the application because, some said later, they worried they would be fired if they approved it.

After years of F.D.A. delay on a promise to reconsider the morning-after pill decision, and as the lawsuit by advocates wound its way through the courts, the Bush administration in 2006 allowed over-the-counter sales to women 18 and older but required a prescription for those 17 and younger. Then in 2009, Judge Korman issued a ruling in the court case directing that the pill be made available over the counter for those 17 and older. In his 2009 ruling, the judge said the government’s actions on the pill had been driven by politics and not science.

In his ruling on Friday, Judge Korman also raised the issue of politics, saying that Ms. Sebelius’s decision was “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent.”

What Would You Do With A 22% Raise?

(A great post from the Womens Bar Association of Illinois)

EQUAL PAY DAY

APRIL 9, 2013

Wear red to support the cause

April 9, 2013 is Equal Pay Day. This date represents how far into the year 2013 women must work in order to earn as much compensation as their male counterparts did in the year 2012.

It has been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963. The Equal Pay Act outlawed wage discrimination between men and women in the same establishment for a job requiring substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility under the same working conditions. Despite this legislation, a significant wage disparity still exists in all occupations. The most recent statistics from 2011 illustrate that women earn approximately 77% of their male colleagues’ salaries. This wage gap increases for minority women, with African American women earning approximately 69.5% less, and Latino women earning approximately 60.2% less. Despite significant progress in narrowing this wage gap after the Equal Pay Act was enacted, it has remained essentially stagnant at 77% since 2004. Some economists have concluded that if this wage gap between men and women were eliminated, the poverty rates would be cut in half.

In order to further the progress of the Equal Pay Act, additional legislation is being introduced at the federal level.

Paycheck Fairness Act

· Reintroduced in January 2013 by Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut

· Requires business owners to justify wage discrimination based upon something other than sex

· Prevents retaliation against workers who inquire about wages and disclose their own wages

· Provides for compensatory and punitive damages, back pay and authorizes class action equal pay suits

Fair Pay Act

· Sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia

· Expands the Equal Pay Act to prohibit wage discrimination based upon sex, race and national origin

· Requires employers to provide equal pay for work of equal value whether or not the jobs are the same

· Bans retaliation and requires employers to file wage information annually to the EEOC

We invite you to wear red on April 9, 2013 as a reminder of the women and families forced to live in “the red” due to unequal pay. You can also take action by notifying your senator and representative of your support of equal pay for all genders and races.

Goodbye to All That: The Real Housewives Part II

(A continuation from yesterday’s post)
Bravo certainly encourages the bad behavior of Housewives, but it also functions like the worst of husbands who carelessly discard their first wives. The network continually replaces cast members as they become too old, boring, difficult, demanding, predictable, or crazy. The replacement cast member is like the trophy second wife, similar to her predecessor just younger, newer, sexier, more willing to play along for a time. Such replacements remind the cast and the audience that everyone is expendable – a commodity that can be replaced easily by another commodity. The audience too is supposed to simply forget the now banished housewife. Silence surrounds her departure and her name is seldom uttered. Perhaps, these are the lessons of the modern world.

As each cast member is a commodity, multiple housewives use the show and their new found fame and media access to sell their own commodities — wine, cookbooks, skin care, clothing, cocktails, underwear, sex toys, records, jewelry, make-up, handbags, and even a stun gun. The name of the game is to quickly turn one’s sixty minutes of fame into cold hard cash. Housewives take on the aura of HSN.

A number of housewives make it to something resembling D list celebrity status, but there is something quite tragic that hangs over the franchise. For every housewife who gets her own show or pot of gold, there are bodies left behind. The divorce rate for housewives is astounding and their divorces continually fuel the gossip pages. Like the real world, Housewives when they divorce often face serious economic problems as they trade their MacMansions for smaller digs and worry about how to pay their bills. But other tragedies occur as well a fiancé was murdered; a husband committed suicide; a boyfriend died; children go to jail; housewives enter into rehab; families go into bankruptcy. On some level, this resembles the trajectories and pain that so many American families face. Yet Bravo never focuses on these downers, it is simply easier to get rid of the unsuccessful apples or give such misfortunes short shrift – let’s move on to the next fight, the next outfit, the next party.

I understand that my own rant is full of hypocrisy. Just turn the channel I tell myself. I am like those who blame junk food companies for their weight gain but the reality is that Housewives is junk food perfectly engineered to produce the bliss point and cravings for more. I am never satiated. Like junk food the Housewives are not innocuous. The franchise so vividly reflects and perpetrates misogyny, confirming our worst sense of ourselves, and our relationships with other women. After so many years of Housewives, I can barely imagine a world where NBC would pick up the Golden Girls (1985). The idea of a show featuring three older fully clothed women who relatively harmoniously live together and love one another seems like a relic of a past golden era.

Goodbye to All That: Bravo’s Housewives Part I

I am ending a seven year relationship that has become toxic.  I had never been entirely honest or open about the relationship hiding it from friends, making excuses for lost evenings, hours when I could not be reached by phone.  No more — I am breaking up with Bravo’s Real Housewives — all of them from New York to California,  Atlanta to Miami.  So why would an educated woman with a family and demanding job become so addicted? What could be so appealing?  How could it happen?

When the Housewives of Orange County first aired, I justified watching as a sort-of anthropological exercise bringing me deep inside Reagonite suburbia.  Even if the various characters’ lives did not reflect my own, they were not so distant from the lives of some of my acquaintances.  Blonder –yes; richer- yes; more materialistic-yes; but on some level still relatable as they struggled with children, husbands, friends, careers, and perhaps most of all their own secreted ambitions.  The casts were likeable and beneath the veneer of their manicured lawns and over decorated homes typical family problems brewed. The Housewives were certainly not brilliant documentary but it also was not Survivor. Bravo seemed to respect that its audience was composed of adult women with some intelligence whose TV choices were the equivalent of a food desert.    

As time went on and the show’s franchise expanded, the characters slowly turned into parodies of themselves. They became real housewives performing the role of being real housewives.  As if in some version of a gender theorists’ laboratory, the housewives now most closely resemble a drag show as they engage in studied and exaggerated performances of upper-middle class femininity.  Now, the main feature of episode after episode is the standard cat fight.  Like Sartres’ No Exit or for that matter Big Brother, the cast members are put together only to tear each other apart.  Housewives are expected to criticize and judge their fellow cast members, continually escalating conflicts and creating ever changing alliances involving anything as small as a perceived insult, a cold shoulder, the failure to attend an event –In other words, junior high school on steroids.  

Critics originally hailed the show as innovative, creative, and even subversive.  It was celebrated as bringing a queer perspective to television.  Cultural critic Camille Paglia recently claimed the show to be great for feminism and an important additive to the unsexy Gloria Steinem version of feminism.  (There is an irony here — Gloria Steinem now the grand dame of feminism was long considered to be the sexy public face of feminism).  Yet Housewives is deeply conservative, trading in the oldest of gender stereotypes.  The greatest insult one housewife can hurtle at another  is to be  “old,” “fat” a “transvestite” a “whore,” “a home wrecker,” “a gold digger,” “a bad mother” and “trash.” These are insults that have been used for centuries to disparage women and were once considered legally actionable slander.  As cast members are aware, they are attacking each others’ claims to being ladies.  Yet what does it mean to be a lady (on a TV reality show) in 2013? As one Housewife tauntingly sings, “Money can’t buy you class.”

 If the cat fight is one way to create dramatic tension, so too plastic surgery. With each season, the Housewives become ever more devoted to the surgeon’s skills.  Even if money can’t buy you class, it can by you new breasts.  These procedures become the center piece of episodes as we watch preparation for the surgery and all gather to celebrate the reveal of someone’s new nose, breasts, lips, face, or tummy tuck.  Such surgery is de rigor as the Housewives desperately try to starve off aging. In Bravo’s world, appearing one’s age becomes a cardinal sin.  As if surgery were not enough, the real prize is to be married to a plastic surgeon. Not only does the wife then have some claim to his salary and status but better yet to discount surgery and quick emergency Botox injections. One of the greatest gifts one housewife can bestow upon another is a free procedure performed by her husband.  

At times episodes even have a soft-core porn feel as the cast parades in bathing suits and the skimpiest of dresses. The camera hovers on its subjects’ butt, breasts, crotch.  What do these images evoke in the viewer – a comparison with oneself, jealousy, titillation, criticism, bewilderment? Like porn, each part of the female body becomes a fetish, a part, an object, endlessly reconstructed. The camera mocks, lingering on close-up shots of cellulite or untoned and undisciplined flesh. Such shots then become yet another rational for surgery.  

If as some claim the Housewives have anything to do with feminism, I do not see it.  If it is there it is of the narrowest kind, deeply connected to consumerism and the mimicking of men’s objectification of women.  Liberation is then simply appropriating the male gaze, going to strip shows, learning pole dancing, having breast implants, and ultimately objectifying oneself.  The Housewives’ critical gaze (and our own) is turned on other cast members, but it is ultimately turned on oneself.  As feminist theorist Catherine Mackinnon writes, patriarchy works by women becoming “thingified” in the head.  We become objects of our own gaze.  We do not need men, we do it to ourselves having thoroughly consumed the worst of patriarchy.

The Fetish of Motherhood

The faux pas of the New York Times obituary of Yvonne Brill is symptomatic of a larger problem in our culture of worshiping the abstract idea of motherhood if not actual mothers. We see this in a number of disparate places in the media. There is of course the ubiquitous  media focus on pregnant celebrities in which we are reminded over and over again that an actress’ greatest accomplishments are her children and that her baby bump is the consummate fashion statement. Although we expect more from the New York Times than from People, its Sunday “Modern Love” column is endlessly devoted to stories of the laments of middle aged career women yearning desperately for children. Each of these articles is like a warning bell screaming to other women — watch out do not follow in my footsteps. We never hear from the voices of women who consciously decided not to have children and are content or even thrilled to be childless. The decision not to be a mother is instead perhaps silently tolerated but certainly nothing of which to be proud or discussed in civilized company.

Like the 1950s, motherhood is required to reach one’s full potential as a woman. This foregrounding of motherhood takes place even within the feminist media. The documentary Miss Representation explores the negative portrayals of women in the media. Yet the documentary maker is compelled to repeatedly tell her audience that the reason she is making the film is because she wants her daughter to be raised in a more just world. Why did she have to justify making a solid and intelligent documentary with the rhetoric of motherhood? This is but one example of many. Mainstream feminism often focuses on the problems of balancing children and work. Although this is a crucial issue other feminist demands including equal pay and reproductive rights are equally important.

Our society has become pro-natalist while true maternalism is in decline. That is pro-natalism encourages certain women to reproduce while neglecting the needs of real mothers and children. We might gaze at the latest pictures of glamorous pregnant women on the red carpet while actual women and children in this country live in poverty.