Experimenting here a bit, so GWP readers and writers, bear with me! For a piece I’m writing, I’m collecting all the metaphors scholars and advocates use to talk about the “straightjacket” that gender identity can be. Like, well, “straightjacket.” And “box.” What else are people using these days? Please share, in comments, on my FB page, or tweet me @girlmeetsvoice –Gender box GO!

Wishful Thinking“That’s your solution?,” asks a character in my She Writes co-founder Kamy Wicoff’s debut novel. “Time travel is easier than passing affordable childcare?” Rarely do we cover novels here at Girl w/Pen, but given the subject matter (and, full disclosure, the fact that I think Kamy is the bomb), I’ve become interested anew in the question of fiction as a mode of advancing public conversation. As someone who once considered writing a dissertation on popular feminist fiction from the 1970s, I’m obsessed with the portrayal of women’s issues — and working mothers’ issues in particular — in popular discourse, imagined and real. Can fiction centered on work/life issues bridge research and reality? Here’s how our conversation went down. -Deborah

DS: Wishful Thinking joins working-mother dramadies like Alison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It and Where’d You Go, Bernadette–a contemporary genre in which a middle- or upper-class protagonist tries and fails to “do it all,” breaks down, puts herself back together. What do you see as the advantages, and limitations, of fiction as a mode of advancing the conversation around working mothers’ dilemmas? Is this a domestic drama, or a social one?

KW: Is the pressure to have, do, and be it all so great that only science fiction can solve it? In a way, I wrote the book as an argument against the notion that the increasingly impossible demands placed on working parents are each individual’s problem to solve, by showing how crazy it is that my protagonist, Jennifer Sharpe, thinks forcing her body through a wormhole is a perfectly rational response to her out of whack work/life balance—more rational than trying to reform the out of balance system itself. (One of my favorite lines in the book comes from Jennifer’s coworker, Alicia, who, when she finds out about the app, says, “That’s your solution? Time travel is easier than passing affordable child care?”) Jennifer believes it is a domestic drama, but it is absolutely a social one, and I think by writing a novel rather than a nonfiction book on the subject, I was able to underscore that in a fresh way.

The other inspiration for Wishful Thinking was very personal, and inspired by fiction—I was reading the Harry Potter books with my older son, and I thought, I love this, but I wish it were about a woman my age, not a ten-year-old boy. And then I thought, if I could give a working mom any power, what would it be? The answer, the ability to be in multiple places at once, came immediately, because it’s a need I and every mother I know shares, whether she is juggling a job and kids or raising her kids full-time. But even that first impulse was feminist and socially conscious. I hungered for a fun, fanciful but thoughtful and grown up book about someone like me, by someone like me—not something written for a YA audience or with yet another male protagonist I couldn’t relate to—because in the current fiction marketplace I was starving. (I Don’t Know How She Does It came out fourteen years ago, if you can believe that. And I have never gotten over the fact that they made Multiplicity about a man. Really? It’s the guy who feels like he has to be everywhere at once?) The premise I instantly arrived at is in itself a critique.

Overwhelmed, by Brigid SchutleMom's RisingNonfiction, of course, can be more explicit in its critique and its calls to action. In an ideal world, a working parent would read Wishful Thinking, then read Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love And Play When No One Has The Time, and then join MomsRising and start petitioning her Congressperson like mad.

DS: When we first created She Writes, we were two entrepreneurial mamas on a mission to start something and simultaneously be there for our very young kids. You, in fact, were an early model for me of what living two passions looks like. (Recall those staff meetings on my bed while I was on bedrest, carrying twins!) Five years later, I look around me and see mothers of all stripes struggling as if the decades of advocacy for better workplace policies in support of working families hasn’t moved the dial. What’s it going to take, other than wishful thinking? Any latest initiatives you’re aware of that you’d like to shout out here? 

KW: It is easy to be discouraged, isn’t it? (And how could I forget those staff meetings?) One of the things I liked most about Overwhelmed, however, was Brigid’s determination to tell success stories, most prominently in her “When Work Works” chapter, providing models for change rather than only pointing to what, in workplaces, is broken. (And that’s a lot, like the fact that America is one of only 4 of 167 countries in the world with no paid leave for parents—the others are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.) It was through Brigid’s book that I found out about MomsRising, and also about A Better Balance, founded by Dina Bakst in New York. I also love LeanIn.org, with its circles for peer support. And for many years I was on the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, which does fabulous work under the leadership of Shelley Correll on supporting scholarship and research designed to move that heavy, heavy dial—and gets that research into the hands of people with the power to make change. I’m also looking forward to Laura Vanderkam’s upcoming I Know How She Does It, for some practical, actionable tools to alleviating some work/life stress.

DS: As much as your novel is a comment on work/life condundrums, it’s a satire of app-for-that culture and technology. Are our hyperconnected lives fuller lives, or lesser lives? Are we more connected to each other, or just to our apps?

KW: This is so hard to answer. On the one hand, I witness, as I think we all do, the clearly deleterious effect of our devices on our personal relationships; the other night my son and I were at a restaurant and the entire family at the table next to us was glued to their devices, oblivious to one another—I’m happy to say my son noticed first, and was appalled! The book is certainly about that, and a commentary on our addiction to our phones. (In the first scene Jennifer realizes she’s lost her phone, and the panic and despair she feels are emotions I have to confess to having had in the same situation.) I’m pretty good about managing my use when I’m with my kids, but the pull to check email, Facebook, and the rest is very powerful, and does feel like an addiction at times, which is scary. On the other hand, my dad, who lives in Austin, can read stories to my kids, in Brooklyn, on Skype, which is magic. We have a shared family photo stream we all subscribe to, and I just saw my nephew have his first bite of rice cereal. I know what’s happening in the lives of many more people than I would have ever thought possible, and am alerted to news, social justice issues, and causes I might never have been exposed to, through these platforms. Yet I fret about it. I feel often feel that while I may have more knowledge about more people in my life, I don’t have richer relationships with them for it. (And as we all know, Facebook posts notoriously skew sunny.) Our generation is in a funny spot, not having grown up with any of this, but being so fully immersed in it now as adults, and as parents. Sometimes I wonder if our fretting will someday sound like the worries that television would spell the end of culture…but maybe television has done that. Ha.

DS: I don’t want to give too much away, but a significant plot line in your book concerns a brilliant female physicist whose discovery goes unrecognized by the scientific authorities. What was the impetus for a strong woman scientist at the center of this text?

KW: There was never any question in my mind that the physicist who invented time travel would be a woman, for a variety of reasons. The obvious one, of course, is that the story of science and its major breakthroughs is told by and about men, leaving countless brilliant and deserving women out. Physics is particularly bad—the Nobel Prize in Physics has only been awarded to two women in its history, and hasn’t recognized a female physicist’s work in fifty years. In this notoriously sexist field, I wanted to create a character who had fought her way through, and in some cases inventively worked her way around, a system stacked against her. (I’m also an amateur physics lover. Have you see Particle Fever? There are some fabulous female scientists featured in that movie.) I also chose to make her a passionate collector of artifacts of female scientists who had come before her; for Dr. Sexton, these women are the muses. Researching that part of the book was a delight—did you know Florence Nightingale was an accomplished mathematician, and invented infographics? Or that Hedy Lamar co-invented spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology? I also felt strongly that I didn’t want to have magic in this book—there’s enough of that mushy, bibidi bobidi boo stuff out there already featuring women. Who needs a fairy godmother when you can have the greatest physicist of all time at your side? There was another, very compelling reason I wanted a strong women scientist at the center of my book. So I could make a Larry Summers joke. Which I did.

DS: Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” You’ve had some terrific literary mentors in your life—Diane Middlebrook, Nancy K. Miller, Alix Kates Shulman, Francine Prose… Barring (ha!) for a moment the complicated maternal metaphor, in what ways have these women influenced your writing or your sense of yourself as a woman who writes?

KW: Well the late, great Diane, of course, is the model for Dr. Diane Sexton, the physicist who invents the app in the book. (Diane Middlebrook wrote the seminal biography of Anne Sexton, hence the name as homage.) I miss her every single day, and writing this book was a way of having her voice, her presence, and her inimitable style close to me for the year and a half it took to write it. Diane completely changed my life. She was the first person to look me in the eye, when I was a young graduate student who felt that, without an agent or a book, I could not call myself a writer, and say, “You are a writer!” in a way that made me believe it. She told me to write the truth about my life, and I have tried to honor her ever since then by doing it. We founded the Salon of Women Writers together in London in 2003 (again, when I was a young nobody, and she was an established badass, but she saw what a good team we’d make), which led to my founding SheWrites.com with you, and ultimately She Writes Press with former Executive Editor of Seal Press Brooke Warner.

Diane believed that as a woman who writes, it’s pointless to insist on being viewed simply as a “writer” because the world doesn’t view you that way—the best thing is to resist that prejudice by critically responding when it inevitably rears its head, and always to combat it with wit, fearlessness, and of course, brilliant writing. Francine, Nancy and Alix all do that too. I derive so much courage and strength from their example. Hopefully I can do the same for a young woman writer or two someday. But as a debut novelist at forty-two, I’m a little behind in the game.

For more, check out Kamy’s post on Moms Rising. Visit Kamy’s website. Meet her on a stop during the She Writes Press National Spring Book Tour – coming to Chicago on June 29 (I’m hosting!). And go buy the book.

And as always, I invite you to join my Facebook community, pin with me on Pinterest at Tots in Genderland, follow @girlmeetsvoice, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, workshops, writings, and talks.



The Princess Problem
The Princess Problem

As the mother of a preschooler who’s enjoying princesses while her mama tries to make sense of it all, I’m more than pleased to bring you this guest review of Rebecca Hains’ The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years, penned by Susan Sapiro. Susan is a New York-based grant proposal writer with a background in program development in womens and girls issues.  Enjoy! – Deborah

* * * * * * * * * * * *
“That’s the problem,” said Olivia. “All the girls want to be princesses. At Pippa’s birthday party, they were all dressed in big, pink, ruffly, skirts with sparkles and little crowns and sparkly wands. Including some of the boys.” (Olivia and the Fairy Princesses)

This profound comment, spoken by the porcine heroine of Ian Falconer’s series of books (and a Nick Jr. TV series) stayed in my head as I immersed myself into feminist media and communications scholar Rebecca Hains’ new book The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years. What is the Princess Problem? According to Hains, a children’s media culture expert and a professor of media studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts, it isn’t so much actual princesses who are the problem – many cultures have princess figures and stories. Rather, it’s the Disneyfication and branding of princesses, the large-scale marketing of Princess culture, which has become such a prevailing force in the lives of preschool girls that parents are troubled by how all-encompassing Princess culture has become in their daughters’ lives. They are concerned by how limiting its imagery of beauty, romantic relationships, and racial representation are to contemporary girls in North America. They are alarmed when their daughters who dont participate in Princess Culture are shunned or bullied in school or on the playground. And they are desperately seeking alternative images, products, and media to show the breadth and depth of real girls and women’s lives.

For her research, Hains interviewed over 50 parents psychologists, educators, media-literacy experts, girl empowerment advocates, and academics that focus on popular culture and race issues. She also did participant observation research for her study, working as a princess birthday party performer, dressing up in shiny ball gowns and blond wigs, and entrancing young girls by reading them fairy tales, painting their faces, and making them balloon animals. The money she made from these parties helped to fund her research trip to Walt Disney World where she observed “the Disney brand of princess culture in action”(xiii). Her undercover work also helped her gain an appreciation on the importance of princess culture in girls’ lives.

As Peggy Orenstein before her has made profoundly clear, the sheer vastness of princess marketing, mainly by Disney, is responsible for the seeming every-where-ness of princess culture. In 2012 Disney Princess – the brand – sold $1.52 billion US in licensed merchandise in North America, more than Star Wars and Hello Kitty! Hains explains how since Disney has created or rather, re-created the princess brand, other brands from Barbie, to Dora the Explorer, to animal characters like My Little Pony have seized on the princess premise as the holy grail of marketing to the target demographic of young girls. Yet, not only has the Princess brand been absorbed by Disney’s competitors in the toy industry, it has also oozed its way into products in every area of life, becoming a “lifestyle brand” – featured in food, clothing, home goods , making sure that today’s preschool princesses turn into lifelong loyal Disney consumers. (A search on Amazon.com for “Disney Princess” yields an astounding 64,979 items in 31 departments.)

One of Hains’ most intriguing points is that princess marketing is so effective because it takes advantage of a stage of childhood in which boys and girls start to focus on gender. The way they try to figure out what it means to be a boy or a girl is to hone in on external and stereotypical qualities – short hair for boys, long hair for girls, skirts and frills for girls, superheroes and blue for boys. Researchers cited by Hains note that many 3-4 year old girls and 5-6 year old boys develop “appearance rigidity,” which means they become, in Hains’ words, “completely obsessed with wearing stereotypical clothing – which for girls often equals pink frilly dresses.” I was amused to learn that there’s even an acronym for this in scholarly literature – PFD. This phenomenon may be familiar to readers who have or may know three-year-old girls who refused to wear pants for a certain period of time, a phase that occurred with both of my daughters. (Reading Hains’ book, I was pleased to learn this was a developmental stage, not a moral failure on my part as a feminist mother trying to push her gender-neutral views on a reluctant preschooler.) During this phase of “appearance rigidity” among preschoolers, each gender celebrates their own types and fiercely rejects the other. Disney has exploited this with its pink frilly princess marketing extravaganza to girls but still hasn’t been quite as successful in marketing cars, pirates, and superheroes to boys.

Go! Go! Sports Girls
Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls

Subsequent chapters of the book focus on various aspects of the Princess Problem. The “Pretty Princess Mandate” is harmful to young girls, who end up focusing on appearance, to the exclusion of active play. The princess narrative makes the equation that beauty = happiness and goodness, and young girls who become women spend countless hours of self-scrutiny (and judging other women), trying to live up to an unrealistic beauty ideal. Hains’ personal example of how hard it is to fit into this ideal is amusing. When she worked as a birthday party princess entertainer, she found it difficult to fit into the princess costumes she was required to wear, because the measurements were based on the company owner’s teenage daughter. Hains offers good examples of how parents can combat the Pretty Princess Mandate, including not discussing your weight or dieting and buying realistically proportioned dolls such as the Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls instead.

As has been well documented, on this blog and elsewhere, outdated gender stereotypes abound in the traditional princess narrative. In a chapter titled, “The Problem with Gender Stereotypes, “ Hains writes about how parents have noticed their daughters’ play changing from active to passive after they enter the Princess stage. One therapist she cites chronicled her attempts to recover her daughter’s spunkiness after she saw her formerly active toddler engage in a new form of play – sitting and saying, “I’m waiting for my prince.”

While a number of anti-Princess books, such as Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Jennifer Harstein’s Princess Recovery touch only briefly on the racial issues inherent in the Princess Problem (i.e. all of the Disney Princesses, except Tiana from the recent The Princess and Frog, are white), Hains, a self-described white academic, devotes a chapter to race and diversity issues raised by Princess Culture. Hains acknowledges her own privilege and calls for alternative models for girls of all colors. Included in the book are a critical discussion of how children learn both racial prejudice and acceptance, the history of Disney’s problem with racialized characters, and strategies for encouraging children to become increasingly conscious and respectful of racial diversity.

Bridging academic and popular realms, Hains’ response to the negative lessons taught by Princess Culture about consumerism, gender stereotypes, beauty ideals, and racial stereotypes is a method she calls “Pop Culture Coaching.” In Pop Culture Coaching, parents start by reflecting on their own values and issues relevant to girls. Then they coach their children to think critically about media – its content and the messages conveyed. Hains assures readers that this is not to show girls that princesses are negative or to “‘de-princess’” them. Instead, media literacy will help girls see the complications with princesses and realize that there is a multiplicity of ways to be a girl today.

The Princess Problem is filled with practical tips: Diversify our daughters’ media diets to show them a range of images of women and girls. Read books that offer alternatives to traditional princess fairytales (she includes a list). Teach children about how media is created and the thinking behind advertising. Her website (www.RebeccaHains.com) she includes parent-child discussion guides for all of the Disney Princess films and other types of movies. A discussion guide for the recent Disney Princess hit, Frozen, is included as an appendix in the book.

In a refreshing twist, Hains doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with princesses, sparkles, frills and pink. In her words, “Princesses are pretty, and sparkles and frills are fun! Girls have been playing princesses for generations.” What she objects to is the marketing of frilly pink princesses as the only type of girlhood available to young girls, especially as compared to a wider range of choices for boys.

Parents are right to be concerned, she notes, about what their daughters are learning from the ever-widening reach of the frilly princess culture. As the mother of two young daughters, one kindergartner still in the throes of princess-preoccupation, one third-grader now thankfully (and disdainfully) past it, I can confirm with hindsight what the scholars find: that it seems to be a developmental stage that passes. Yet, that doesn’t negate the harmful impact it can have on young girls, influencing not only what they wear, but also how they play, who they play with, what they watch, and how they think about their looks, and what they want to (or want their parents to) buy.

Even those who rail against Princess Culture can find it hard to refuse their children these sparkly indulgences. When friends offered us free tickets to Disney’s Frozen on Ice this past fall, after much internal debate, pleasure won out over principle. Earlier this winter, as I watched the graceful skaters ins Frozen on Ice with my daughters , a line from the show’s dialogue struck me as the essence of Hains’ book. In the scene, Anna is explaining to Kristoff why her sister Elsa froze the land of Arendelle:

Frozen on Ice
Frozen on Ice

Anna: Oh well, it was all my fault. I…I got engaged, but then she freaked out because I’d only just met him, you know, that day. And she said she wouldn’t bless the marriage, and…
Kristoff: Wait. You got engaged to someone you just met that day?
Anna: Yeah. Anyway, I got mad and so she got mad and then she tried to walk away, and I grabbed her glove…
Kristoff: Hang on! You mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?!
Anna: Yes. Pay attention!

Pay attention. Pay attention to the media children are consuming. Pay attention to the problematic messages for girls in seemingly benign but ever more all-encompassing Princess Culture. That is what Hains wants readers to do.

My twins

Raising pre-school aged boy/girl twins in a rigidly gender-bifurcated universe where attitudes sloooooowly change is one big gender bender, my friends–I swear. Some days, I get whiplash. Let me show you what I mean.

Last month, the Australian-based initiative called No-Gender December made a valiant stand against the gendered marketing of toys to our children, raising both eyebrows and awareness. I loved it. Huzzah and yay!

But with January comes announcement of the arrival of Heartlake City, a “girl” section of Legoland Florida’s hit theme park scheduled to open this summer. Look at the picture (below, right), and read this post about how the introduction of the girl section (which includes a shopping mall, a convertible where girls can take selfies) implies that all the other sections (dinosaur exploration area, fire station, city streets, pilot school, archeology-themed ride, science area, jousting, playground) are for boys. The creepy tune and lyrics of “Girl Land” from the Free to Be You and Me album come to mind (“you go in a girl, and come out a lady!”). Hiss. Boo.

Heartlake City Legoland
Heartlake City, aka (IMHO) Girl Land

I love Lego, and so do my kids, and I hate that Lego bricks themselves—that once gloriously gender-neutral toy, a Danish toy, for irony’s sake—now have gender.

But the same day I learned about Legoland’s launch of Girl Land, I came across a poster in a coffee shop located on my town’s main drag announcing that come February, About Face Theater is bringing A Kid Like Jake to the Greenhouse Theater Center, along with “weekly post-show discussions around the topics of gender development in children, contemporary parenting and discovering identity for young people.” Huzzah and yay!

Screen shot 2015-01-16 at 5.59.08 PMThis play by Daniel Pearle, an urban drama about an upscale couple annoyingly obsessed with getting their kid into prestigious private kindergarten (the kind that cost an annual $40K), is simultaneously a modern portrayal of a kid with enthusiasms for gender-variant play. The poster I saw in the coffee shop features a little boy, backed turned to the viewer, gazing longingly at a wall onto which a shadow image in the likeness of Disney’s Cinderella is projected at five times his size. “Why can’t a boy be a princess?” the caption reads. Right there on Main Street. Granted, mine’s a progressive town. But I still find cause to celebrate the fact this play, and with it its sweet and beautiful poster, is going around the nation. So I repeat: huzzah and yay!

No Gender December. Girl City. A Kid Like Jake. Yay boo, yay boo, yay.

This whiplash reminds me of a handmade book made by some kid in my elementary school (hello Greeley!) and housed in the school’s library. The book’s title was Fortunately, Unfortunately. On one page, something good would happen to the pint-sized protagonist. (“Fortunately, when I woke up today, Mom made me my favorite pancakes.”) The next page featured the reverse. (“Unfortunately, we were out of syrup, so I had to eat them plain.”) Something delicious would happen, then something annoying would happen that would take that deliciousness away.

Our preschool rocks

That’s how I feel about our culture’s one-step-forward, two-steps-back slouch toward a world in which a very young boy (like mine, pictured up top) can wear pink and purple legwarmers without bystanders batting an eye. He’s five, and who cares. And fortunately, my two five-year olds go to a remarkable preschool, where messages like this one are plastered on the walls:

Unfortunately, not everyone in our wider community may feel the same way as my preschool community does. Yet.

Fortunately, my daughter does. When my son told his twin sister he was jealous of her new legwarmers, she let him “borrow” them without missing a beat.

Unfortunately, he came home without them on. (Not sure what happened at school – highly likely he just got hot.)

And for one final moment of whiplash, while walking down a main street in town the other day returning to my office, I passed by the new French bakery, with a sign on its door that read “Nous sommes Charlie.”

"Nous Sommes Charlie"
“Nous Sommes Charlie”

It broke my heart. And then my spirits rose again.

Because right next door, at an indoor playspace for babies and tots, I saw this:

“Raise courageous people”

“Raise courageous people,” the rainbow-colored sign in the window reads. There’s a second sign above the first, with a quote from Matisse: “Creativity takes courage.”

I have a dream, that my two little children–and all our little children–will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their anatomy, and what they like to play with, and what they like to wear, but by the content of their character.

Raise courageous people. Raise courage, people.

Though I may have whiplash, I, too, have a dream today.


I invite you to follow me on Twitter @girlmeetsvoice, join my Facebook community, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, writings, and talks.

Screen shot 2014-11-16 at 10.55.11 PMHere I sit contemplating equality, the topic of a panel I’m on tomorrow, surrounded by jubilant Bears fans streaming out from Soldier Field. My partner and twins are busy visiting penguins, dolphins, and whales, while I’m illegally parked, waiting in my car. Who else but a non-jock family (and recent Midwest transplants) would head for the Shedd Aquarium on a day when the Bears were playing on home turf next door? For my New York friends, this is equivalent to shopping at Macy’s during the Thanksgiving Day Parade, hoping for a place to park.photo

Pondering the question, “Is what you do about equality, liberation, or both?” in such an atmosphere feels a bit like being teleported to the 50 yard line and declaring to the crowd, “Which way to the fish?”

And in truth, that’s also what it feels like to be concerned about women’s “equal” or even “equitable” representation on the page, in the media, or online at a moment when the media conversation about women is focused on whether Lena Dunham is a child molester, whether Kim Kardashian is a feminist icon, and whether the word “feminist” itself should be banned. The noise from the crowd threatens to drown out everything else.

And yet. I’ve been caught up with the question of women’s representation for a few decades, and with the question of women’s “equal” representation on the page now for a while, through my work with two initiatives—one focused, for starters, on changing the gender ratio of bylines at the world’s opinion forums (The OpEd Project) and the other on disrupting publishing by creating supportive community and, later, “a third way” (She Writes / She Writes Press). Tomorrow’s panel is asking me to interrogate, with precision, what all that effort means.

So allow me, while Bears fans leap over my car and my family enjoys the fish, to think about these and some related ventures together, and out loud.

The OpEd Project (founded in 2008), She Writes (2009), and VIDA, also known as Women in Literary Arts (2009), emerged in the wake of the creation of the Women’s Media Center (2005), an organization that “makes women visible and powerful in the media” and works with the media “to ensure that women’s stories are told and women’s voices are heard,” and in the wake of the earlier Women in Media and News (2001). All these initiatives assume that, in VIDA’s phrasing, “voices change worldviews, and those voices should be multiple and varied.” My OpEd Project sisters and I, in the words of our mission statement and our founder Katie Orenstein, “envision a world in which the best ideas—regardless of where or whom they come from—will have a chance to be heard and shape society and the world.” Kamy Wicoff and I, in our She Writes credo, believe in “empower[ing] and amplify[ing] the voices of women and girls who have not otherwise have been heard” and “in building a platform upon which all of us can stand.”

How do these ventures seek to accomplish these goals? They “increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing” and “further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture” (VIDA). They protest the omission of women’s writing from the pages of career-making journals (VIDA) and from the front-door forums that feed other expressions of thought leadership, punditry, and public influence (OEP). They forge relationships with editors and media institutions that share the mission of changing who narrates the world (OEP). They disrupt the very system they believe excludes women (and others more traditionally without ‘connections’) by creating an alternative press (SWP, led by Kamy and the indomitable Brooke Warner).

And in this multi-faceted fight for women’s share and shaping of public voice, what constitutes a quest for equality and what constitutes a quest for liberation? Feel free to share thoughts here, if you have them.  Join us* at Roosevelt University tomorrow, if in Chicago, and tune in later to an NPR station (I’ll post the link here in this space) for more.

*Fellow panelists are:

Jill S. Tietjen, President, Board of the National Women’s Hall of Fame; Author “HerStory: A Timeline of Women who Changed America,” electrical engineer and CEO of Technically Speaking; Inductee of Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame

Carol Adams, PhD, President and CEO, DuSable Museum of African American History; Ebony Magazine’s “Power 100,” Crain’s “2012 List,” the Illinois Arts Council Governor’s Award in the Arts, and the Outstanding Humanitarian Award from the NAACP

Cecilia A. Conrad, PhD, Vice-President, MacArthur Fellows Program; chairs the Congressionally mandated Committee on Equal Opportunities in Sciences and Engineering, an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation; Author “African Americans in the U.S. Economy”

Marjorie Jolles, PhD, Associate Professor and Acting Director, Women’s and Gender Studies, Roosevelt University, Author “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style”

Moderator: Betty M. Bayer, PhD, Senior Fellow, The Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago; Professor, Women’s Studies, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Co-sponsored by Roosevelt University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Illinois Institute of Technology, Shimer College

PS. Go Bears!


I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, subscribe to my occasional newsletter to keep posted, and come visit me at www.deborahsiegelphd.com


Screen shot 2014-10-22 at 9.13.33 PMWorkplace consultant, coach and work-life advocate Rachael Ellison penned an excellent post chock full of qualitative data at HuffPo Parents last week, “Why Caregiver Discrimination Is Bad for Business.”

Too good not to share.

Remember Catalyst’s Bottom Line series? That groundbreaking research series that first explored the link between gender diversity and corporate financial performance? Well, this is of that flavor, but focused on the bottom-line benefits of retaining working parents, and based on stories from accomplished, successful professionals in their thirties and forties in dozens of industries. As Ellison notes, “In order to create or sustain family friendly workplaces, you need buy-in from organizational leadership, effective manager training, and employee accountability. Most companies don’t have all three, and as a result they lose their top talent. And, it’s costing them a fortune.”

Ellison is working on a book, REworking Parenthood, for which she is currently collecting stories from parents in the trenches, that will help us understand how companies are succeeding and failing in supporting employees’ lives.

Read on, share away, and follow her at her blog and Twitter (@REworkingparent) as she goes.


girl-32813_640Hey GWP Community!

A slew of interesting books “bridging feminist research and popular reality” (our tagline) are either just out or on the horizon, from Seal, Feminist Press, Demeter Press, and many more. Shoot me an email [deborahgirlwpen (at) gmail (dot) com] if you’d be interested in guest reviewing any of these–either individually or in a cluster–here on Girl w/Pen, with an eye toward the larger conversations, perspectives, and research they tap into:

Rebecca Hains’ The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years

Stacey Radin’s Brave Girls: Raising Young Women with Passion and Purpose to Become Powerful Leaders

Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism, Second Edition

Babygate: How to Survive Pregnancy and Parenting in the Workplace by Dina Bakst, Phoebe Taubman, Elizabeth Gedmark

Sarah Granger’s The Digital Mystique

Melanie Klein and Anna Guest-Jelly’s anthology, Yoga + Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body

Queering Motherhood: Narrative and Theoretical Perspectives edited by Margaret F. Gibson

Reconceiving Motherhood by Patricia Hill Collins

Feminist Parenting From Theory to Life Lived edited by Lyndsay Kirkham

Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions Of Modern Motherhood edited by Linda Ennis.

And of course if there’s a book you’d like to review that’s not on the list, please inquire within.

Yours in bridging,

imagesSO much to pick from this season, but among our summer highlights for those of you who missed it or are just now dropping in:

Natalie Wilson finds a gender con at comic con.

Virginia Rutter sets us straight on love and lust.

Elline Lipkin looks at the poetry and prose of “real” motherhood.

Susan Bailey cries uncle on Hobby Lobby.

Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe critique the over-thanking of straight male allies.

Adina Nack culls intel from guest Mary Assad on the science behind medical claims around fat and women’s hearts.

Kyla Bender-Baird invites Jocelyn Hollander to weigh in on Miss USA and self-defense.

Heather Hewett curates Emily Bent on what’s missing from girl power discourse in light of #BringBackOurGirls (namely: rights).

And I sound off on empowerment, tampon ads, and the Always #LikeAGirl campaign.

The other week, I was a guest on the Working Motherhood daily podcast, hosted by Dr. Portia Jackson, aerospace engineer and mother of two. Each week, this savvy host interviews mothers who produce income, be they CEOs, teachers, entrepreneurs, real estate investors, or cashiers. For a taste, check out Portia’s interviews with Rachael Ellison, Gloria Feldt –or any one of 130 more.

I enjoyed this opportunity, very much. Like guests before me and guests after, I shared my family-and-career journey, insights on how I manage the multiple responsibilities, tools that help me, advice I’ve received that has helped me along the way. We only had half an hour. And there’s so much more to say.

The interview kept me thinking long after Portia and I hung up. In the spirit of continuing the conversation, always, here are some of my favorite “things to say about working motherhood” that I didn’t have a chance to share on air.

1. Working fatherhood — say what?

I’d love to see a Working Fatherhood podcast. Period.

2. There’s a conversation behind the conversation here.

Any conversation about working motherhood in the US necessitates a conversation about the embarrassing lack of high quality, universal, subsidized day care. The case is clear. For an investigative analysis of the challenges of finding good care, check out Courtney Martin’s piece in the New York Times last week; Avital Norman Nathman’s recent roundtable on Debra Harrell’s arrest (for leaving her child in a park while working her shift), motherhood, and race at The Frisky; and Alissa Quart’s inside look at the crushing cost of childcare, from last year.

3. Working motherhood — not just about individual solutions, anymore.

In the absence of said high quality, universal, subsidized day care, working mothers are left to seek out our own individual solutions. Again. We experience a political problem as personal, 40 years after the women’s movement re-surged. When things fall apart, we again find the fault in ourselves. (Heartfelt shout-out, and visible recognition here, to all-around assistant Melissa Shoemaker, whose intelligent, compassionate care for my four-year old twins while I work helps me keep it–mostly–afloat.)

3. Non-traditional is where it’s at.

Shout out to the caregivers, but shout out, too, to non-traditional arrangements in marriage. As the Council on Contemporary Families reports, new research suggests that in marriages formed since the early 1990s, men and women are much more happy with non-traditional gender arrangements than in the past.

4. Working motherhood is hot.

Yes, research shows that sex is better and divorce less likely for egalitarian couples. And for more on that, see our own Virginia Rutter’s incredibly informative Psychology Today cover story, Love & Lust. So there.

5. Not a choice.

For so many of us, and in the wake of recession, working motherhood is not a choice. It’s a financial necessity. But even if it weren’t my necessity, I’d choose it—or rather, it would chose me. I come from a long line of working mothers. Because it’s the air that I breathe, pondering how I feel about “working motherhood” is like a fish saying “water, works for me.” At the same time, not a day goes by that I don’t think about what a broken system we live in, filled with inequitable expectations and skewed assumptions based on outdated gender roles.

See again number 1, above.


I invite you to follow me on Twitter @deborahgirlwpen, join my Facebook community, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on my coaching workshops and offerings, writings, and talks.


By now you’ve likely seen the Always #LikeAGirl video that went viral, evoking tears of recognition as well as feminist critique about the uneasy equation of empowerment and tampon ads. And if you haven’t yet, click here or watch below.

Empowerment cheese, says Jezebel. An emotional ploy for tampon sales, writes Daily Beast and also Shape, who asked professional female athletes to respond. Outdated, responded ultra-runner Ellie Greenwood. “I agree that we should be way beyond this kind of thing. I can think of so many strong female sports models…I think that we should be at the stage in sports—and also in people’s perceptions of sports—that there is no reason why women can’t do 99 percent of what men do, and having some conversation about it is a little out of date.” Yes, yes, and great.

And still, here’s the thing: I’ve watched this video myself four times. It is manipulative, I agree, given that there’s no clear action on Always’ website steering us to how we might protect pubescent girls from the confidence plunge (other than using a winged panty liner, surprise, or sending out a tweet to prove how awesome doing things #LikeAGirl really is). It is consumer capitalism masquerading as feminism. Yep.

But what I’m interested in, as both a scholar of narrative and a communications professional, is why I, along with so many others, am so darn moved by the message in the video. Let’s forget that it’s Procter & Gamble, just for a tiny sec.

The video’s message is powerful because award-winning filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, the video’s director, is good. Her documentary creds include The Queen of Versailles, Thin, Kids + money, Beauty CULTure. Her photojournalistic book, Girl Culture, is by all accounts an intelligent exploration of American girlhood, endorsed in an introduction by no less than historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg.

So Greenfield is good, and the thinking behind the project is smart. The ad provokes us grown women to think back to a time before we were aware of gender difference, before “like a girl” meant something derogatory. For many of us, that’s hard to do. But if you think back, I bet you can find it. Give it a try. It’s a highly worthy pursuit.

Ok, I’ll go. My own recollection of that moment when I first realized “like a girl” could mean something negative was the day I asked my high school history teacher, who happened to be the boys’ baseball coach and clearly favored the jocks, why no one in the class was bringing up issues of morality when discussing the reasons the U.S. nuked Hiroshima. “Morality? That’s such a girl response,” said someone in the room. Cue snickering from all the boys in the room. Next, cue confidence plunge.

Well, almost. Lucky for me, my English teacher that year, Ms. Medwin, was a big ole feminist, and the world she opened for me saved me from despair. Under her guidance, I wrote my first real term paper–on Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich, women who refused to go under. “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,” wrote Rich.

Rich also wrote this: “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” To that end, I’d love to see the kind of messaging in the Always video applied to a massive campaign, say, to restore the rights of the women of Hobby Lobby to access contraception through health care. Or to find all the remaining kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Or to any number of wrongs that need righting, right away.

Because at the end of the day and after all the virality, it’s still a tampon ad, and there’s nowhere much for our roused sentiment—the connecting between and among women we experience here as viewers—to go.

And so, a video with a powerful message becomes a lost opportunity. Amanda Hess at Slate sums it up when she notes, “it’s a little sad that all of this enthusiasm for women’s stories are leading us directly to a box of maximum protection wings, while female filmmakers and characters are still so underrepresented at the box office.” We’re wasting our best filmmakers on tampon ads, the headline screams.

Thinking like a girl over here, I say it’s high time empowerment causes, and not just empowerment products, had a PSA as powerful as this tampon ad. Causes for the betterment of women and girls’ lives deserve our most creative thinking, our savviest makers and marketers of all sorts.

When the cause for gender equity truly goes viral, when it becomes actionable and not just aspirational, then maybe, just maybe, “run like a girl” will mean, as one of the women in the video implores, “win the race.”

I’m not hugely optimistic, but I have to stay hopeful. Because my greatest hope is that by the time my little girl, now four years old, hits puberty, this conversation will actually be out of date.


 I invite you to follow me on Twitter @deborahgirlwpen, join my Facebook community, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on workshops, coaching offerings, and talks.