Archive for the ‘Thoughts about . . .’ Category


Hillary and the Invisibility of Older Women

March 30, 2016

If Hillary Clinton wins the 2016 presidential race, I fully expect to see a headline declaring: Grandmother elected President of the United States.

Gender analyses of Hillary Clinton as she seeks to become president have correctly identified the double bind and double standard she faces. Rebecca Traister pointed out that some of the hostility to Hillary is a response to the transgressive act of a woman openly seeking power.

But what hasn’t been discussed is something I’ve only recently become aware of: Hillary’s age. As a woman over 60, Hillary is just supposed to go away and be content with her grandchildren and perhaps, since she still has her health, some meaningful volunteer work. Maybe make those cookies she never got around to baking earlier. She’s not supposed to still have goals and dreams, abilities and wisdom. She’s not supposed to have energy. She’s not supposed to aspire to agency or power.

You can hear this in the way her support is dismissed because it relies on women over 60, while the support of young voters for Sanders is invoked as proof that he’s the more legitimate candidate.

You can hear this in the way pro-Hillary comments by Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright were discharged by young women—Go away old, white feminists; the world has moved on, and you are irrelevant. It’s not that Gloria’s and Madeline’s comments didn’t warrant critical response, but whatever they said was likely to be dismissed as the rants of women who are on the shelf beyond their expiration dates.

What I heard in the defense of Steinem and Albright were the kinds of things we hear people say about the elderly:

You don’t understand what they’ve been through.

She’s a little prickly, sure, but she’s earned it.

Just listen politely; she’s old. You don’t have to stay long.

If there is one thing I’ve learned since tipping over the line into my sixties, it is that women this age are not even seen. So when they get all in your face, like Hillary and Gloria and Madeline, wanting to still contribute, and contribute on their terms, people get uncomfortable. Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is given appropriate honor for being a “badass,” is still considered a little bit “cute” because she’s a badass at her age. Kind of like Betty White is a cute old lady. But Hillary is not cute, has never been (or aspired to be) “cute.”

When Hillary ran in 2008, she’d barely turned 60. She wasn’t quite old enough to be invisible. Indeed, many of the harshest attacks on her centered on her body, especially her sexuality–her lack of traditional feminine appeal, her sexual identity. She might have been considered a feminist bitch, but she was a bitch with a sex life. But in a year when the Republican men running for the nomination compare the size of their body parts and Donald Trump points out the menstrual cycle of a Fox News celebrity, Hillary is remarkably bodiless. Sanders’ and Trump’s hair get more comments than hers; Rubio’s shoes make more news. While on the one hand, I’m happy that Hillary’s supposed frumpiness is less of an issue, it’s not because we’ve become more enlightened about the sexism embedded in those kinds of comments; it’s more that at 68, what she wears and how she grooms herself just isn’t noticed; it’s part of her invisibility. She and Bill are assumed to have a marriage of convenience, where he gets all the sex he wants and she sleeps in a separate bedroom and claims it’s because they both snore. While this was once a scandal, she’s now of an age where some people assume she is sexually dried up.

People don’t want to face the reality that older women have something to offer—in politics, in the workplace, in the bedroom. The unspoken message is: Please Hillary, just go away. Don’t shatter the stereotype of older women as dotty. Don’t remind us that some older women haven’t met all their goals earlier in life because they were supporting their spouse’s career. Don’t remind us that older women should be taken seriously.


Sanders, Clinton, and the need for leadership

January 25, 2016

Every four years we participate in the ridiculous fiction that the candidate who has the “right” positions on “the issues” will make the best president. If that were true, there are at least 100 people on my Facebook feed who would make better occupants of the White House than anyone currently running for the nomination in either party.

We see this fiction in debates and interviews in which journalists question candidates about their plans for the economy, taxes, health care, budget-balancing, as though the president has the power to magically enact those plans all by theirself (Note: I’m embracing universal gender-neutral and number-indifferent pronouns).

Being “right” on the issues is different for each of us, and it’s important to know what candidates think about immigration, corporate wealth, and climate change, but we should pay at least as much attention to the leadership qualities of the candidates, because it doesn’t really matter how “right” the president is if they do not have the qualities needed to advance those positions while simultaneously representing the entire diverse population of this country.

By “leadership” I don’t mean how tall the candidate is, how male, or how white—all of which have been correlated to notions of leadership. I don’t even mean how persuasive or influential or charismatic they are, or, as one definition of leadership maintains, how able they are to get people to do what they don’t want to do, which sounds a lot more like manipulation to me. I don’t even mean “character,” or how trustworthy, moral, or likeable the president is. I remember Jimmy Carter as someone whom I considered to be “right” on most of the issues, who was pleasant and likable, and had a clear moral compass. And I remember that Carter failed to get even people who agreed with him to want him as their leader for another four years

I’m not always crazy about notions of leadership that assume leadership is something a person “has,” the way they might have athletic ability or artistic talent. And when we talk about leadership as something someone “does,” I think it’s important to remember that it’s not something they can “do” all by themselves. Leadership, in other words, is not the president as “the decider.” That’s authority. And if the decider can enact the decision that’s been made, that’s power. We shouldn’t confuse the power and authority of the president with leadership, and we should be realistic about how much a president can do to move their ideas forward without the participation of Congress–and still survive a challenge to the Supreme Court.

I like the notion of leadership identified by Wilfred Drath in their book The Deep Blue Sea: Leaders are those who create the future. I like it because it doesn’t place responsibility on one person; we all create the future.

Creating the future is a slippery concept. It’s not the same as “vision,” a sense of where the leader wants to take you. Hitler had such a vision. He had the charisma to engage followers in going there. And, of course, it was a horrific vision that played on the fears of too many people and went unchecked far too long.

Creating the future, in a more generative way, involves an ability to see when something is unfolding that represents a more collective vision than one individual politician’s. It means recognizing when there is breach in the social fabric that will allow—or requires–something new to take hold, combined with the ability to engage (not direct) the forces necessary to capitalize on that moment so that what takes hold is good. It’s not about polling. It can’t be taught in an MBA program. It runs the risk of great failure and great success.

We needed a president in the 1960s who could create a future that didn’t include nuclear annihilation as an outcome of the Cold War. We needed a president who could recognize that the forces demanding civil rights were a cry for a different future.

We need a president now who not only cares about rectifying income inequality, eliminating injustice, and welcoming the displaced, but understands the complexity involved in creating that future. It will take more than passionate words. It will take more than an ability to make deals.

Though I agree with much of what Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton say on the issues, they are both stuck in old paradigms of politics and leadership, and those paradigms don’t interest me. It perhaps goes without saying that none of the Republican candidates offer either an understanding of the future nor any interest in moving us there—they (including the candidates who are not white or not male) are committed to old power structures as well as old paradigms.

My exploration of Sanders suggests he is comfortable in the role of Dissident—which I see as a valid and important form of leadership, but one that tends to break down once the Dissident is in power and has no Power to speak truth to. His website touts the votes he took in which only he saw the truth. I admire that kind of clarity and ability to take a stand. And I wonder, if he couldn’t use that role effectively in the Senate to get others to see the light, how does he expect to as president? For me, the question is not about Sanders’ electability as much as his effectiveness.

Hillary Clinton, like most women of her generation, has had to learn to function as a woman in a man’s world. She’s had to be twice as good to be considered half as qualified. I don’t agree with all her choices, but I understand that to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate she’s had to become twice as good at playing by the rules of a system set up to benefit white heterosexual males. So much so that she’s now seen as too much of a cold strategist, even a schemer.

Hillary has been caught her entire adult life in the double-bind that scholar Alice Eagly has documented about women in leadership—if she’s too feminine, she’s dismissed as unqualified, but if she’s too masculine, she’s viewed as inauthentic. “Inauthentic” is what her opponents keep hammering on. And maybe her tendency to be strategic rather than idealistic has made her more vulnerable to that charge, but as a woman, I want to cut her a little slack when it comes to the notion of authenticity, because women in the public arena rarely get to be authentic and still be successful.

Clinton is a Strategist. She “gets things done” by making deals. Where Sanders stands his ground perhaps too much, I wonder where Clinton would be willing to take a stand. Further, Clinton’s ability to make deals is going to be thwarted every bit as much as Obama’s has been by Republicans in Congress and the fears they represent. If Obama threatened the status quo by breaching the racial barrier, Clinton will further weaken it by breaching the gender barrier. It will be just as hostile, if not moreso, than we’ve seen with Obama. The prospect of not only eight years, but twelve or even sixteen years without a white heterosexual male in the White House cannot be underestimated for its ability to rally opposition to Clinton every step of the way. At the same time, if nothing substantive happens in the next 4-8 years because of Congressional gridlock, with Clinton at least we will have had 12-16 years in which the white male heterosexual establishment has had to share power. That’s no small thing when it comes to creating a future with new paradigms.



When terror is the new normal

December 7, 2015

In the wake of the shootings in Paris, where people had gathered to hear music, have a drink, watch a soccer game; and in San Bernardino, where a training program was to be enlivened by holiday festivities, people are asking: Is any place safe? Mainstream media asks readers: How much do you now weigh the risk of going to a shopping mall, sporting event, movie theater, health clinic? Is weighing that risk the “new normal”? Is this what our lives will be like now?

If you are a woman, you have grown up weighing the risk of engaging in everyday activities that carry a heightened risk of violence simply because you are a woman: getting into your car in a public parking lot, walking alone after dark, having a drink at a party, going on a date, falling in love, ending an intimate relationship. If you are a woman of color, the risk increases dramatically.

We don’t call it “terrorism,” what men have done to create a culture in which women are fearful of random violence–some even in their own homes. But whether it is a random shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic or an isolated assault on a pregnant woman, the purpose is to assert power and control, to restrict movement and freedom. As women, we have internalized the danger so much that it feels “normal”: being alert for red flags, glancing around you, rehearsing possible responses to different scenarios.

In time, the thought that the bus you get on might be blown up by a terrorist will become as normal as the thoughts women have daily–that they might be assaulted by the man who gets off the bus with them. It will cross your mind. You will shrug it off. You will decide you have to take some risks if you are going to live your life with any semblance of freedom.

Women learn early. When I learned to drive, I learned to look on the floor of the back seat of the car before opening the driver’s side door. Someone could be hiding. I was told to always carry coins for a pay phone, in case I wanted my parents to come and get me when I was on a date. I was told never to get on an elevator alone if a man was in the car, and get out if I was alone and a man got in. I had to pretend that violence against women wasn’t something real so that I could be hired as only the second woman to report the news at a daily newspaper, because the need to “protect” women from dangerous situations was the excuse used to keep women out of journalism.

One night, while covering local elections, I repeatedly walked through downtown alone, going from Democratic headquarters to Republican, looking for statements from candidates. The losing Congressional candidate was nowhere to be found. Walking back to the newspaper after midnight, to file my story before the 1 am deadline, I ran into the candidate’s campaign manager. The candidate was in a hotel room. If I came with him, I could get a quote. I went. I wondered, as I rode up the elevator alone with him, if I would be safe. If I was stupid. If getting the quote was worth the risk. I knew the male reporter on the competing newspaper wouldn’t have had any hesitation, not because he was braver, but because he had no reason to feel unsafe.

I was safe that night. In fact, I’ve been fortunate to have escaped sexual and physical violence. Let me describe how fortunate that is:

  • In the United States, one in five girls experience sexual abuse.
  • 20 percent of adolescent girls experience physical or sexual violence in a dating relationship.
  • 20 percent of women have experienced an attempted or completed rape.

I don’t know what the statistical likelihood is today of being the victim of a Paris or a San Bernardino type assault, but I’m pretty sure it in no way approaches one-in-five. But 20 percent is enough for all women to think about it. It’s enough for it to be “normal.”

Different women do different things to feel safer on a daily basis in a world in which they risk violence from intimate partners as well as strangers. Some don’t wear clothing they want to wear. Some go to the restroom in a group. Some pay for taxis rather than take less expensive public transportation. Some stay home rather than go for a hike or go camping or take a trip by themselves. Some try to imagine what would please their partner so that he doesn’t become abusive. Some stay in hurtful relationships because leaving them might be riskier. Some carry a weapon. Some move to a new city and change their names. But all of us consider limiting our movement, our appearance, our behavior. We all consider whether to quiet our voices. We weigh the risks. This is normal. We don’t even notice that we do it. If we don’t do it and we are hurt, we will be asked: What did you do to provoke this?

This is a question no one asks when there is what we call “terrorism.” We don’t ask why someone sat outside at a café or went to school that day, or attended their office Christmas party. In the new normal, perhaps we will.



The burning ground of stories

August 28, 2015

My mother used to remind me of the saying “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” I had shoes. Today my internalized mother voice might admonish me by saying, “That’s a First World problem.”

We rank suffering. Being killed by a wildfire is worse than losing one’s animals or home, which is worse than breathing the hazardous levels of smoke now enveloping places where I used to live, which is worse than breathing the “unhealthy” levels of smoke on only one weekend where I live now. You get the idea. Still, even when others suffer more, there is sadness for your own loss.

I am not in danger from the August wildfires. But I look daily for updates on fires in places familiar to me from the almost 40 years I’ve lived in the Northwest, most of those years in Idaho. Kim Barnes reminds us that even when artifacts burn, the stories remain. But those stories are grounded in place, and I wonder what happens when the place where a story is grounded burns, turns to ashes, how that changes the story.

On Labor Day weekend, 1980, Carl and I drove east from Riggins, along the Salmon River, to the end of the road where we camped and hiked and harvested yellow plums that we took home and made into jam. We knew our daughter would arrive in two weeks, that our lives would be forever changed, that it would be a long time before we could spontaneously go camping again, just the two of us. Neither of us sees a yellow plum without thinking about that otherwise unremarkable camping trip. That area, as near as I can tell from the limited information I can find, is now evacuated, burning as part of the Teepee Fire.

Further north, the areas north and south of the Selway River are burning, places where we backpacked with the kids and eventually where Carl and I camped before moving out of Idaho, our children grown—the camping trip we couldn’t imagine that weekend on the Salmon.

I read that another fire is within a mile of Wilderness Gateway campground, the first place we camped with the kids, a trip that we remember for too many Oreo cookies. The Wild Women of the Palouse used it as our base camp for hikes to Stanley Hot Springs and Jerry Johnson Hot Springs on a weekend with the kind of rain that area badly needs now.

“Waiter, I want some water.”

I can’t tell you all the stories of the rivers and lakes, or of cross country skiing in the Methow Valley, now evacuated and burning. I know my concerns pale in comparison to the mothers I know whose children are fighting those fires, people whose computers and photo albums are in boxes by the front door. But I still wonder if the Syringa Café is still standing, because when you hike out of the Selway, all you can think about is a piece of their huckleberry pie.


“Love in the Cold War”

July 20, 2014

July 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. I was 17, and Carl and I were in love. We watched the moon landing on television, each of us in our own homes, talking to each other on the phone as a way to share the experience. Carl took pictures of the TV with his camera. Later, I wrote this poem:


Love in the Cold War

The man on the moon giant-leaped across
the screen, a lunar version of a child’s game

of permissions, his mission: put Sputnik in its place;
ladder down from pod to crater to recreate the great-

ness that was us (and in the nick of time, for the decade
was about to end, as the now dead president had said.)

In separate dwellings on far sides of town, we beheld
the spectacle, ears to phones, eyes to tubes, connected by the next

to impossibility of such before us, above us, perplexed
by the tranquil sea in the cold war ingrained in us. We snapped

pictures of pictures, shots of the shot, grainy images in black
and white of an icy orb of dark and light, in cosmic disbelief.

It did not matter much to us that gravity was absent,
that war was hell and space expensive. We stored the photos

with diplomas, proof not of astronomic savvy or diplomatic
strategy, but our own Lake Erie Camelot, saved

to show those who bounced into our arms, strong
souls whose own unsteady steps inspired treasured prints.

I don’t recall if we believed Neil’s promenade, surpassing
fantasy, trespassed on our claim. Our adolescent love, declared

beneath Selene, was fresh but not some phase, our footprints
mingling in the grains of sand no less historic, no less grand.


When a child feels worthy

April 7, 2014

News reports tell us that 1-year-old Lyra, who fell ill while on a sailboat that had become disabled in the Pacific, is safe and getting the health care she needs. I am glad. I am glad the U.S. Navy responded to her parents’ distress call and that her parents are no longer sick with worry.

At the same time, I think about the many infants and children in this country who are not rescued by our government. Children who go to bed hungry. Children who live in housing and neighborhoods that endanger their physical and emotional health every single day. Their parents know they must fend for themselves.

What Lyra’s story highlights are the assumptions about who gets help, who deserves help. The lack of public discussion over the use of public resources to rescue one child adrift in the Pacific Ocean instead of so many who are adrift in the ocean of poverty suggests that we already know the answer to the question of who will be rescued because it is built into our system—our system of privilege. The system of privilege is one reason Lyra’s parents felt safe heading into the ocean on their yacht with their two small children. This system of privilege is why hundreds of other parents do not send out distress signals—because they know no one will respond, that they will be told that taking care of their children is their responsibility, and if they can’t do it without some assistance from time to time, they are parasites feeding on the hard work of others.

When it comes to poor children, children of undocumented workers, children who are not white, children being raised by single parents, we invoke the myth of individualism—that we live in a country of unlimited opportunity and that anyone willing to work hard can make it on their own. Those who fail to do that are told they don’t deserve help.

Findings from a study in North Carolina that began in the 1970s show that it does not take much intervention with children to achieve far-reaching and long-lasting results. The Abecedarian Project involved more than 100 poor children, mostly African American with mothers who had not graduated high school and had no one to care for their children while they worked. The children were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Both groups received nutritional supplements, basic social services, and access to health care. In addition, the “treatment” group received 6-8 hours of high quality day care for the first five years of their lives. They were held, played with, and talked to by trained caregivers. The cost was approximately $70,000 per child.

The results have been dramatic. Children in the treatment group were four times more likely to have graduated college and thirty percent more likely to be employed in a skilled job. What surprised researchers, however, is that the treatment group is also healthier physically, with significantly less heart disease and obesity. Economists are now doing a cost-to-benefit analysis, which I hope will take into account not only what is saved in the cost of health care and social services, but the increased contributions to society of children who grow up more prepared to be productive citizens.

What we can’t put a dollar figure to, however, is the impact it has on these children to experience being treated as though they have worth to society. Imagine every child feeling the way Lyra might feel one day—that I was valuable enough that my country invested enough resources in me that I would not only survive, but thrive.




Breaking the rules

March 16, 2014

forest trilliums 2

As I entered the state park yesterday to meet a friend for a hike, I noticed a sign announcing the Trillium Festival in three weeks. I like trillium, the early spring flowers that pop up unexpected in the woods, but I was grateful I wouldn’t be competing for a parking spot with the trillium-seekers.

As my friend and I hiked along the trail, however, it was clear that this was the peak weekend for trillium, which had paid no attention to the state park calendar. There would be some disappointed hikers in a few weeks.

We had made the turn at the far point of a loop and were heading back to our cars when we encountered a barrier on the trail. “Trail closed. Washout.” We looked at each other. The two of us had once encountered a fast-moving river near timberline on Mt. Hood and crossed it on a fallen log. We’d arm-wrestled a taxi driver in Buenos Aires—I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean he wanted to arm wrestle each of us, repeatedly, while driving. On another occasion, we were (mistakenly) certain the deposit on our room had been returned to us in counterfeit twenty dollar bills and spent a Lucy-and-Ethel afternoon trying to decide how to spend them before returning to the United States and the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department. We’d watched the United States women’s soccer team beat Canada while we sat in a bar in Toronto. This barricade meant nothing.

We continued up the trail, and soon encountered a half-dozen mud-covered workers marching toward us, shovels and pulaskis slung over their shoulders, all but singing, “Hi ho, Hi ho. . .” The smell of stale cigarette smoke overcame the more subtle smell of cedar as we passed them. It now seemed likely that the washout had been repaired, and we congratulated ourselves on our choice. Rounding a corner, we suddenly came upon the orange fencing where the trail had dropped into a small gully and a fresh wooden bridge spanning the narrowest portion of the gap. And the park ranger. We’d been seen, so there was nothing to do but continue toward the bridge.

“Oh my, what happened?” my friend said. It would have been more convincing if she’d said it in Spanish. The ranger carefully explained the situation, adding how grateful he was to have had a crew working off their community service requirement available to build the bridge. “This is just temporary; we can’t fix it permanently until August. The trail will be closed again then,” he said, adding, “but you know how some people are, they’ll go right past a sign saying the trail is closed, thinking the rules don’t apply to them.”

He’s going to have to speak to the trillium.



November 20, 2013

November 22, 1963

Sister stands at the blackboard
diagramming a compound sentence. Static
from the box above the door
stops her mid-verb. She turns and slips

her hands beneath her bib, as though
embracing herself. She’s almost folk
art—thin and straight, shrouded in crepe,
a white wimple at her temples, no stray
hair exposed. I watch her lift her face
to listen, and when Father’s booming voice
is somber and low, I keep my gaze
on her. “The president has been shot.”

She flinches with shock,  
closes her pallid eyelids. She slides
her fingers to the tray of chalk
to steady herself. I lift the lid of my desk
to shield me from her lapse and pretend
to sharpen a pencil until she claps

us back to work. She draws a broken
line, connects two independent clauses,
but she cannot retract the truth unveiled
today that scares me even more than death.

~Lois Melina, 2004


. . . the 99%

November 17, 2011

One of the key requirements of a social movement is a collective identity–a sense that the members of the group share the same life experience that has been the source of their suffering.

The slogan, We are the 99% (and so are you), easily captures the essence of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots: 1% of the population controls 20% of the wealth, at the expense of the 99%. The movement draws its energy from an increasing awakening that the distinctions between the homeless, the working poor, the middle class, and even those we might think of as wealthy, become meaningless when compared to the distinction between all of those people and the elite 1%, whose lives most of us can’t even imagine, even from reality TV.

That awareness has drawn supporters to the movement as well as those who say, “I’m not one of those Occupiers, but . . .(I share their outrage).”

The problem, however, is that a social movement has to push up against something in order for there to be significant change. There is a clear oppressor here–the 1%. But where are they? The demonstrations necessary for the movement create far more disruption for the 99% than for the 1%. The movement is walking a fine line between calling attention to the fact that the majority of Americans are working harder and harder for less and less and disrupting those same Americans while they do their jobs–including bank tellers, bus drivers, and city police.

This doesn’t mean Occupiers need to go home and tidy up in order to make nice with the 99%. It’s just a challenge that they face.

The women’s movement faced a similar challenge. In forming a collective identity with other women who shared the same life experience, the movement asked women to wake up to the fact that they lived in a world that was organized to benefit men. A lot of women felt that to identify with this movement would mean viewing their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons as adversaries. Their solution was to say, “I’m not one of those women’s libbers . . . (but I share their outrage).”

The Occupy movement does not need what many pundits and politicians have said it needs; it does not need a hierarchy of authority or a list of demands. It does not need to elect people into the same system that it opposes–an approach that has had only limited success for women and African American men. However, it does need to gear its efforts so that whatever disruption is felt by the 99% becomes felt with greater intensity by the 1%–just the way the 1% has disproportionately benefited from what the 99% has put into this economy.

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