Good diagnosis, but prescription FAIL

I’m at a conference this weekend, so while I’m out, go read Joanne Lipman’s interesting commentary in The New York Times today, “The Mismeasure of Woman.”  (H/t to Indyanna for alerting me.)  Lipman writes, “[c]ertainly, when you look at the numbers, women have made tremendous strides over the past 25 years. But in the process, we lost sight of something important. After focusing for so long on better jobs and higher pay, maybe the best thing — the enduring thing — we can do is make sure respect is part of the equation too.”  She traces the decline in women’s status to 9/11 and the simultaneous rise of rampant misogyny on the web.  (There may be a causal link there, or just a correlation–Lipman doesn’t say, and I’m hard pressed to try to disentangle the two phenomenae.)  “The conversation online about women, as about so many other topics, degenerated from silly and snarky to just plain ugly — and it seeped into the mainstream.”

I’m glad the status of women in American society is getting attention in the opinion pages of the Times, but her prescriptions seem like extremely weak tea.  (Well, she was a magazine editor–even so, these are surprising for their glibness.)  For example: 

  • “First, we can begin by telling girls to have confidence in themselves, to not always feel the need to be the passive ‘good girl.’ In my time as an editor, many, many men have come through my door asking for a raise or demanding a promotion. Guess how many women have ever asked me for a promotion?  I’ll tell you. Exactly … zero.  Sure, it’s a risk to ask for a raise. But women need to take risks — and to realize that at some point they will fail.”  Do women “lack confidence” in themselves, or are they screamed at and/or ritually humiliated every time they go off-script and do something manly like ask for raises?  This sounds like more of the “ask, and ye shall receive” advice of which I am so dubious.
  • “[H]ave a sense of humor. Believe me, it’s needed.”  Seriously?  She makes what I thought was a jab at herself and her so-called “post-feminist” friends in college at the beginning of the article:  “When I was in college in the 1980s, many of us looked derisively at the women’s liberation movement. That was something that strident, humorless, shrill women had done before us. We were sure we were beyond it.”  Now, I’m not so sure she’s mocking her naivete as beating the dead horse of the “Soviet” era of feminism.
  • “One final suggestion: don’t be afraid to be a girl.  Women do have a different culture from men. And that can give us some tremendous advantages. Women are built to withstand hardship and pain. (Anyone who has given birth knows what I’m talking about.) That’s a big benefit at a time like this, with the unemployment rate at 9.8 percent and rising.”  Whaaaaa?  Separate spheres, refreshed and ready for the twenty-first century?  And, did she really just use this valuable media real estate to write the sentence, “[a]nyone who has given birth knows what I’m talking about.”  I don’t think there is a textual way for me to indicate exactly how far back into my head my eyes rolled when I read that one.

Your thoughts, friends? 

Something tells me that when this valentine to Michelle Obama is published on the same day as Lipman’s comments, we’re not going to get very far.  Charles Blow writes, “Mrs. Obama is redefining my concept of a first lady, and I like it. Apparently, I’m not alone.”  Redefining his concept of a first lady?  Please.  Obama is a first lady in the tradition of Laura Bush, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, and on into the past (excepting those bossy speedbumps Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Eleanor Roosevelt!)  There is the excitement of her relative youth, which Blow suggests as he rhapsodizes over her rope-jumping (wow!).  Having lived through the 1990s and seen what happened to Hillary Clinton, and having young children in the White House with her, I think Obama is only being prudent because of our recent revival of endemic misogyny that Lipman describes.  But, let’s not call Obama a break with the past, or a terribly innovative first lady.  She isn’t, because she clearly doesn’t want to be.

0 thoughts on “Good diagnosis, but prescription FAIL

  1. Lipman:

    We were sure we were beyond it. We were post-feminists. After all, we lived equally with men… We didn’t talk about sexual harassment — that was just part of life. As a freshman, I had an interview for a magazine internship in New York City. As I sat down, making sure to demurely close up my slit-front skirt over my knees, the interviewer barked, “If you want the job, you’ll leave that open.”

    We felt the same way when we went to work. After graduation, when I first joined The Wall Street Journal, I could count the number of female reporters there on one hand. The tiny ladies’ room was for guests. The paper was written by men, for men. It didn’t even cover industries that were relatively female-friendly, like publishing, advertising and retailing. When the newspaper finally did introduce coverage of those sectors a few years later, most male reporters weren’t interested.

    “Beyond it”? Beyond what? She believed she belonged to a post-feminist generation, yet the experience she describes, in college and after, is what Second Wave feminism was fighting to eliminate–by Lipman’s account, unsuccessfully. I can’t make sense of this–truly, no snark, it just doesn’t add up.


  2. Obama is a first lady in the tradition of Laura Bush, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, and on into the past (excepting those bossy speedbumps Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Eleanor Roosevelt!)

    How could you forget America’s first female President?


  3. The Lipman piece is such a funny combination of self-satisfied “I am as good as a man” with “we’re different” that I can’t even begin to pick it apart. But I am so tired of being told we were humorless feminists in the 70s, by people who never bothered to talk to us.

    And really, we just have to tell girls to have confidence in themselves? The irony is that for many girls/young women, not being a “good girl” is all about sexual behavior or self-presentation. But she doesn’t mention the need to challenge the sexualization of all things female?

    As for the separate spheres stuff, ick. This after all her macho posturing about success in a man’s world on men’s terms?


  4. According to the women who come into my office seeking legal representation, we have not yet arrived in the post-feminist era.

    It’s just mind-boggling to me that Lipman characterizes endemic sexual harassment as the post-feminist era.


  5. Oh, also, check out the article about how the White House is frat-boy heaven but that’s okay presumably because the women don’t want the same access to the President that the men get.

    “There is a sense that Obama has a certain jocular familiarity with the men that he doesn’t have with the women,” said Tracy Sefl, an adviser to Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign who speaks regularly to some female aides in the administration.
    Ms. Dunn, who had to take a typing test three decades ago to work for a campaign, rejects the notion of a boys’ club. She calls the Obama administration “refreshingly un-self-conscious” about matters of equality, maybe to a point where they neglected the “optics” of the all-male basketball game.

    Ms. Dunn said that she recently hosted a baby shower for an administration official and that no men from the office were invited. [Was the President?] She is comfortable with that — just as she is fine with never playing basketball with the president.

    “That is just part of the culture here that I am excluded from,” she said. “And I don’t care.”


  6. One thing that concerns me from this articls (assuming it’s true) is the lack of female access to core spaces of power. It *is* a big deal not to be included in the pick-up sports events because those are venues in which power relationships are forged and reinforced. And Dunn “doesn’t care?” WHAT? Is this because the chocolate chip-oatmeal cookies being served by women staffers to women reporters down the hall are JUST SO YUMMY?


  7. I’m glad the ‘new misogyny’, especially on the internet, is being covered somewhere as high-profile as the NY Times, though I’m not convinced about Lipman’s tracing of the problem to 9/11. I think that is largely coincidental, given that the same patterns she is talking about are visible in societies such as my own that have been much less affected, on a long-term cultural level and in terms of political shifts, by 9/11 and the US war on terror.

    As to #1 – that advice as a standalone prescription is, as you say, next to useless. As I pointed out at the end of the post you originally linked to, there are definitely a whole lot of deep-rooted systemic issues at work that no amount of ‘asking for more’ , in isolation, is going to change. And that is why we still need feminism as a political movement. How else, I wonder, does Lipman expect to ‘change the conversation’?

    On #3 – I’m horrified by the implied separate spheres message there, as well as the whole ‘you couldn’t possibly understand unless you’ve given birth’ nonsense.

    Susan makes a great point about the hugely mixed messages young girls get force fed by society and the media.


  8. Oh, and like Blow, I think it’s terrific that the first lady can do double dutch – that was a great picture. I could never do it, so I’m jealous. But it doesn’t showcase her intelligence or wisdom, and she’s kept in fairly safe territory. Certainly you don’t have to go to Harvard Law School to do double dutch.


  9. Misogyny has been alive and well on the internet long before 9/11. Sheesh! These Johnny-come-latelies to online society always bemuse me. But, then, she seems to have the historical perspective of a newt and the prescriptive insight of a quack so what should I expect?


  10. I think she’s merely tolling the bell for the failure of third-wave feminism — and she’s trashing previous waves, to help her bury the corpse.

    Look, she’s done the “I have brains and I like sex” thing, and now she’s no longer a hottie, so she has to actually consider that a political stance and solidarity matters. At the moment where she knows shit’s no longer funny (those meen boys on the Internets!), she’s handing out advice to her inferiors that reinforces her “good boss” image. There is power in gaining respect by taking a stand, and not worrying about making a man smile, and that power does not grow by selling out your sisters with bad advice.

    And she completely overlooks the problem that she, as a boss, who knows her ‘girls’ deserve promotions, makes them ask for them, instead of instituting fair-labor standards that make those determinations automatically, regardless of gender. She tells gals shouldn’t be afraid to be gals, but does she mention how women who take time off to build families or take care of others fare with their careers? How’s her frakking onsite child care, for Pete’s sake?

    She had power and completely failed *as a feminist* to brighten up her corner of the sky — so now she blames 9/11 and the Internet? I would tell her where to go, but my mother raised me to be a lady on the Internets.


  11. Thanks for carrying on while I was out.

    cgeye–great points. Why indeed would she make women come ask for it? Why didn’t she use her position to guarantee salary equity? Why did she reward men for just asking?

    I share Susan’s world-weariness about it all. (CPP is right, though–it’s huge progress that it’s not in the “women’s pages!”) I guess what I find so exhausting and depressing is that Lipman’s article is a lot of people will think is the current state of feminism. Sigh.

    Emma–as I was packing up to leave my hotel room just now, I saw a discussion on John King’s political chat show on CNN this morning about that White House frat culture. I’ll take a look at this when I get home–but again, just: sigh, sigh, sigh.

    I wonder if Frat Guy will weigh in on this? (Frat Guy–are you out there?)


  12. Oh, and p.s. to rootlesscosmo and many others in this thread: I read Lipman’s comments about being “post-feminist,” followed by her discussion of sexual harrassment as intended irony. I thought she was mocking herself and her college friends for their naivete. But then, her article degenerated into so many trite and hackneyed ways of talking about women and feminism that it really undermined that earlier ironic wink about her own foolishness as a young woman.

    Then again, the New York Times loves them some “post-feminist” college women any time they can get their hands on a few and write a story about the huge “new” “trend” they’ve discovered. And they love giving ink to people like Rebecca Walker and Katie Roiphe, especially because they’re apostates from their famous feminist mothers’ chapels.

    Sighhhhhhhhhhhh. Right now, I’m going to drive home in snow flurries from a conference in Colorado for the second time THIS MONTH! (WTF?) Yet somehow, it feels right, after having read this thread.


  13. Maybe more grrrrr than sigh on the Summer-Camp Obama front? In the “Political Memo” piece on the front of the Times today, it seems as though the circle-the-wagons department people over there just don’t get it. The issue wasn’t about Supreme Court appointments, 50-50 West Wing personnel splits, or bringing Hillary on board in the cabinet. It was about the informal office culture, and its presumed policy and career consequences. Having your Communications Director invite a group of women reporters over for “chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies,” but playing 23 rounds of apparently all-guy golf outings with the Chief seems like much more than just an “optics” problem, whatever that is.

    Have a nice drive back to P’ville, Historiann. After another weekend of cold rain, wish we could have some flurries.


  14. I was just surprised that she attributed Backlash 2.0 to 9/11. More likely it’s due to technological advances in online image delivery and video streaming that led to crap like amateur and gonzo porn, which delivered debased images of the sex class (aka females) to anyone with an internet connection, including adolescent and prepubescent boys, many of whom are now men leading the charge. I mean, like, duh. Of course, she assisted in Backlash 1.0, so whatev.


  15. Anna Belle–welcome, and thanks for your comment. I think she’s onto something with 9/11, although it will be difficult to assess by my methodological tools until we get some more perspective and distance. Janice rightly pointed out that sexism on the intertubes didn’t start on 9/11/01, but it coincided with the proliferation of news and entertainment on the web as computers and servers got more powerful (via streaming video, etc., as you note) and the birth of the web 2.0. The worship of traditionally masculine vocations from 9/11 on (firefighters, police) and then very soon after that, the veneration of soldiers and military service played a large role in backlash 2.0, as you call it. (Isn’t it more like Backlash 1,346,756.0 or something by now?)

    In short: the internets were and are a space where women are subjected to all manner of verbal violence and denigration, but 9/11 also refreshed extremely destructive masculinism in the U.S., too. Both of these things are factors, IMHO.


  16. Thanks for commenting on this. I couldn’t make it through the article: she lost me, though whether at one of the “duh!” moments or “here are my feeeelings” ones I couldn’t say.


  17. I’m most disturbed by #3. How can anyone spout that essentialized gender bullsh&t and call herself a feminist? Women have a “different culture”? Seriously?! I would consider feminism a success if we could *just stop talking like that*. Creating a discourse that encourages women to think of themselves a) as different and b) as “built” for suffering is not only counter-productive, it’s downright dangerous. That rhetoric has historically been used to convince women to accept their lot in life – a total reinforcement to patriarchal equilibrium. While obviously there are biological differences between men and women (and ability to gestate and give birth is the most obvious), this fact can be acknowledged without devolving into essentialized traits or characteristics. Every time I hear “little boys are like this and little girls are like that” at the playground I want to jab a fork in my eye. Children are ruthlessly gendered from birth; how the hell can we ever know what they “are” (and why would we even try?).


  18. I’ll take equality if that’s all I can get but what I’m really after is liberty. Equality is never whole, it’s broken up into rights the oppressor tosses out when pressed up against the wall. All equality gets me is access to a broken system. Sometimes I think my professional life is one long string of “patriarchy, you’re soaking in it” anecdotes but here goes:

    I represented my boss at the department chairs’ meeting last week with our college’s two associate deans. Picture the scene: narrow, windowless room full of dudes. Hear the patois: casual exchange of insults about each other’s research and teaching abilities with the odd “f*ck you” for good measure. Not everybody participated but enough did for this behavior to define the atmosphere. I’ve had few experiences in meetings at this level but my impression is that this type of banter is common. The lone voice raised against it came when one of the associate deans admonished somebody for cursing in front of the lady. I know plenty of men who don’t act this way but I’d call it distinctly male behavior, born of patriarchal culture. I’ve never experienced anything like it in meetings dominated by women. It all made me wonder why I’d ever want to move up that particular career ladder. I don’t know if that’s the intent but it sure is the effect.

    Lipman’s advice is grin and bear it, and I suppose if all I’m after is equality, then she is right. Equality means I may sit in that room. I guess I’d like a little more. I’d like to live my life free from measure (or mismeasure) against patriarchy’s yardstick. I’d like liberty. Liberte, egalite, sororite!


  19. Nice analysis of equality versus liberty, Truffula. I can understand why you would say this: “It all made me wonder why I’d ever want to move up that particular career ladder. I don’t know if that’s the intent but it sure is the effect.”


  20. My reaction? Meh. She has made a belated and half hearted attempt at trying to find her inner feminist, and utterly failed. The piece is uneven, facile, and ultimately clueless about her own internalized misogyny.

    I too came of age professionally in the 80s, I and have never had any patience with the whole “post feminism” thing. The women who came before us made huge sacrifices so that we who came after would have it easier than they did. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. Just common sense and a willingness to indulge in some serious self-reflection.

    PS Liberty sounds pretty damn good to me, too. Not to mention the pursuit of happiness. 🙂


  21. Pingback: Next Week, For My Benefit, President Obama Will Play Basketball With Lesbians - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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