9780374141042_p0_v2_s260x420If you’re still looking for that perfect, think-y Father’s Day gift for the dads in your life, or a beach read for those who (like me) crave research packaged in narrative, science journalist Paul Raeburn’s Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked is the book to get this year. No father’s rights stuff here. Instead, it’s a heavily researched and highly readable story of scientific discovery–an overview of what psychologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and sociologists are finding about the role of fathers in their children’s and families’ lives. Raeburn writes for The New York Times, Discovery, and Scientific American and pens the About Fathers blog over at Psychology Today. He’s the chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT and a father of five.

I’ve watched Paul painstakingly compile the research and craft the narrative for this book over many years. His aim in writing it is not merely to publicize and popularize the new science of fatherhood, itself a worthy goal; he’s also invested in helping fathers—and their families—understand how fathers can be better at what they do. Here’s how our exchange went down. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Paul and I are both members of The Invisible Institute, a NYC-based authors group.)

DS: Moving beyond understanding fathers as sources of authority and economic stability in their lives of their children, you look at how new studies of the unexpected physiological links between fathers and children, from conception into adulthood, are forcing us to reconsider our assumptions and ask new questions. What are the key takeaways here?

PR: I was surprised to find so many biological links between fathers and their children, beginning during pregnancy, before fathers have even met their children.images

One example of the profound connection between fathers and their fetuses is that fathers’ hormones do a dramatic turnaround when fathers’ partners become pregnant. Testosterone falls, and prolactin–yes, men have this nursing-related hormone–rises. The thinking is that this profound biological change changes men from competitive mate-seekers into more nurturing fathers.

And the connections between fathers and their children continue. Brain scans of fathers during their infants’ first four months have found striking increases in activity in the prefrontal cortex in response to looking at pictures of their infants or hearing them cry. The brain regions that changed seem to be associated with fathers’ motivations and moods and their involvement with their babies. Infants are sculpting their fathers’ brains to make fathers better able to respond and take care of them.

And as children grow, similar connections continue to exist.

DS: You’re a father of five. Is this book personal in any way?

PR: In this book, I wanted to collect the research on what is known about fathers and their contributions to their children. I mostly avoided personal recollections, because I think it’s important that we distinguish the facts–the scientific findings–from our personal feelings and impressions. I did, however, break from this rule on occasion, when I found I couldn’t resist saying something about my father or my children.

DS: What was the most interesting finding you unearthed from looking at the research on dads in the animal kingdom?

Screen shot 2014-06-13 at 7.52.49 AMPR: I was surprised to learn how much humans and laboratory animals–even mice–resemble one another. Neuroscientists are using mice to find the circuits that govern fathers’ behavior, and they are doing it with mice for two reasons. One is that most human research subjects take a dim view of being sacrificed at the end of an experiment and have their brains dissected. Another is that mice’s brains are remarkably similar to humans’ brains. Both have the same structures and similar circuitry. If a discover is made in the brains of mice, it’s highly likely that the same thing is going on in humans.

DS: Research on mothers and mothering abounds. Why, do you think, we still know so little, relatively speaking, about the role of fathers in children’s and families’ lives?

PR: It’s hard to say for sure, but I think one reason is that psychologists in the 20th century became fond of a theory that excluded fathers from child development. Developed by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, this theory–known as the attachment theory–held that the bonding in the first days and weeks of life between mothers and children was essential for healthy child development. Fathers did not appear anywhere in this scenario.

If fathers were not important–which is what most psychologists believed–why bother studying them? I think this must have changed when a psychologist-father was nuzzling one of his kids, or rolling around on the floor, and caught sight of himself in a mirror. In that eureka moment, he might have said, “My child seems to be enjoying my company. Perhaps I matter after all!” And the rest was history.

DS: If you could suggest a research study, from any field, to continue what you acknowledge as the incomplete investigation of fatherhood writ large, what unanswered questions or quandaries would you most wish to resolve?

PR: I would like to know more about single-father families, and families with stay-at-home dads. On June 5, 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of fathers who do not work outside the home rose to a high of 2 million in 2012. “High unemployment rates around the time of the Great Recession contributed to the recent increases, but the biggest contributor to long-term growth in these “stay-at-home fathers” is the rising number of fathers who are at home primarily to care for their family,” Pew wrote.

I’m eager to see what we can learn from those families about fatherhood more broadly.

I also think gay and lesbian families have a lot to teach us. They are not as constrained by gender stereotypes as some of us, and they are inventing parenting roles anew. A recent study, for example, provided the first evidence that gay men’s brains change in ways similar to the ways mothers’ brains change when they have a baby.

Follow Paul Raeburn on Twitter @dofathersmatter and read more about his work at www.paulraeburn.com

Image (mouse): Flickr, Rick Eh?


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.

Looking for that perfect go-to gift for the wonky feminist mama in your life? Look no further. Your online guide to all things research-and-resource is here. Well, ok, it’s a partial list. Feel free to add suggestions in comments or tweet them at me (I’m @deborahgirlwpen) and I will share. Here’s a start:

1. A book (of course) to help her navigate feminist motherhood. Topping my personal list this season are two by colleagues  copy-redefininggirly_cover2from the Brave Girls Alliance, a gender equality think tank and advocacy group I’m part of that’s dedicated to communicating with and influencing media, corporations, and retailers.  First up, Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween by Melissa Atkins Wardy, my neighbor to the north. You can read an excerpt here, purchase apparel and gifts for “full of awesome” girls and boys that go beyond gender stereotypes at Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies, and join an incredibly active Facebook community over at Wardy’s page.

her-next-chapter-book-coverNext, Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, hot off the press, by Lori Day, M.Ed., and her daughter, Charlotte Kugler, a student at Mt. Holyoke. Covering far more than the significance of book groups, the book hits on eight of the biggest challenges facing girls today, including bullying, gender stereotypes, and negative body image. The authors provide tools and strategies for discussing these thorny topics, providing carefully chosen books, movies, media recommendations, discussion questions, and group activities to go along with each.

And while we’re on it, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital 21-200x300Norman Nathman, is practically a Mother’s Day standard, as is pretty much any title from She Writes Press, Seal Press, or The Feminist Press – three very different presses whose lists include high-quality works on a range of topics related to gender.


2. An experience to massage her mind. Why not gift a mama a slot in The OpEd Project’s Write to Change the World seminar, coming up next in Atlanta, Chicago, LA (where I’ll be teaching it on June 1), NYC, Boston, San Francisco, Tucson, and DC. And for Chicago-area locals, how about a ticket to Women Employed’s Working Lunch gala event.


WomensLeadership-COVER3. A savvy report for her to curl up with at the end of the day.  Hey! This one’s FREE! Gift her the newly released report “The Economic Importance of Women’s Rising Hours of Work: Time to Update Employment Standards” by the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Eileen Appelbaum, Heather Boushey, and John Schmitt, which Schmitt wrote about here.

Or send her Judith Warner’s new report from the Center for American Progress, “Women’s Leadership: What’s True, What’s False, and Why It Matters,” which explores the “silver lining” to exclusion. (Hint: women, long outsiders, have had no choice but to think, act, and lead in out-of-the-box ways, which is why they’re now poised to change our institutions for the better.)


4. Music, jewelry, pjs, a yoga class, or any of the myriad gifts available Every-Mother-Counts-logofrom the online shop run by Every Mother Counts, where part of the proceeds go to help mothers around the world.



5. A magazine or movie to feed her brain. How about a subscription to Brain, Child magazine, or the DVD of the documentary, “Who Does She Think She Is?“, about conflicts between motherhood, work, and art. ‘Nuf said. who_poster



Of course, no need to wait for Mother’s Day, or limit such gifts to mothers. Thinking back to Julia Ward Howe’s call for a Mother’s Day of Peace, come Sunday, here’s wishing all GWP readers and bloggers an equitable and sincerely peace-filled day.


I invite you to follow me on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to my occasional newsletter to keep posted on coaching, workshops, writings, and talks.

This guest post is brought to you by Mary Kay Devine, a Chicago-based feminist and mother of four.  Mary Kay’s day job is the Director of Community Initiatives at Women Employed, a nonprofit that mobilizes people and organizations to expand educational and employment opportunities for America’s working women. Founded in 1973, WE has a 40-year track record of opening doors, breaking barriers, and creating fairer workplaces for women.  For more information, visit www.womenemployed.org. PS. I love this org! – Deborah

MKD Head Shot 2013 (reduced size)March is Women’s History Month – a month when the American public honors women and their voices. But even in 2014, we’re not hearing enough of those voices. The Women’s Media Center recently released their annual report on the state of women in the media, and the numbers were grim. Male front-page bylines in print media outnumber female front-page bylines by 3 to 1. Only 25% of guests on Sunday talk shows are women. Men write the majority of newspaper op-eds. And all-too-often, women reporters are still consigned to writing about “pink topics” like food and fashion.

Women Employed, an organization that has spent the last four decades opening doors, breaking barriers, and creating fairer workplaces for women, recently brought two prominent journalists together to discuss the ongoing problem of gender discrimination. They talked about gender bias in newsrooms, and also in other workplaces, as well as what women can do about it.

“We loved Newsweek! We just wanted Newsweek to be better for women.” That’s what author and trailblazing journalist Lynn Povich told the sold-out crowd at The Newsweek case that changed the workplace…or did it?  Povich shared the story of how she and her female colleagues confronted blatant sexism at Newsweek in the 1960s. In an era when female employees were told that “women don’t write at Newsweek,” they refused to accept it. She and 45 of her female colleagues brought a landmark lawsuit against the magazine in 1970—and won! Povich eventually became not only a writer for Newsweek, but also their first female senior editor.

Povich was joined by Jesse Ellison, a recent Newsweek writer who, forty years after the original lawsuit, came to realize that she and the other women around her were still experiencing gender discrimination.  “The young men around us were getting much better story assignments, they were getting raises and promotions much more easily… We were each having to work much harder than our male peers to get to the same end.” So in 2010, she banded together with her female colleagues to co-author a Newsweek article on the 40th anniversary of the landmark lawsuit questioning how much has actually changed for working women.

These two women highlighted the similarities and the differences in their struggles, pointing out that women today don’t suffer the overt workplace discrimination that Mad Men-era women had to endure. However, they still face obstacles. It’s just that those obstacles are so much more subtle and harder to identify. For working women today, one of the biggest challenges is never being sure if their inability to advance is a personal failure or a result of gender bias.

That makes it in some ways a much harder battle. But as Ellison’s experiences show, it’s not an impossible fight. Both Povich and Ellison stressed that if you are a woman who has been frustrated in her attempts to succeed at work, it’s vital that you not be afraid to speak to your colleagues, both female and male, to determine if what you’re experiencing could be a systemic problem. And then you should act. The experiences of both women show that change can happen, and it can happen from within. When people band together for change, they are powerful, and they can make a positive difference.

Hear what Povich and Ellison have to say about their experiences at Newsweek, about fighting gender discrimination in the Mad Men era and the modern era, and about what still needs to change:

And see their message for working women:

And then go out, make change, and help ensure that more women’s voices are heard, not just this month, but in EVERY month!   Here are some ways you can help: http://womenemployed.org/act

civil_rights_symposium-e1391572426576There’s much debate afoot in the fem-o-sphere this week about empowerment conferences, TEDWomen, MAKERS, and what feminism today means–and for whom. Writes Jessica Valenti in a ringing piece in The Nation, “Many feminisms exist, but it’s a singular feminism that’s on display at most mainstream women’s conferences. That one-note feminism epitomizes the tricky space the movement now occupies: one of historic popularity. And as feminist rhetoric has gained acceptance, what it means to be a feminist has become muddled.” Same thing was said by some in the early 1970s, at second-wave feminism’s popularity peak. How history repeats.

In fact, it’s the kind of week where I feel like I could be penning Sisterhood, Interrupted, Volume 4. I’ve had many such weeks over the years, but this week, maybe, takes the cake. And then something comes through my inbox that feels grounding somehow. This week, it was news of a Civil Rights Act anniversary symposium, from our friends at the Council on Contemporary Families. (Disclosure: our fab Penners Virginia Rutter and Adina Nack are on the Board.)

So it’s in the spirit of continuing the movement with allies from every sphere, remembering where we’ve been, and all that’s left undone, that I share (with permission) Stephanie Coontz’s opening remarks:

[Last week] CCF released the third set of papers in a three part symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The first two sets of papers described changes in America’s religious and racial-ethnic landscape in the half century since it became illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion, skin color, national origin, race, ethnicity or gender. [The third focused on] how women have fared since passage of the Civil Rights Act, because the addition of the word “sex” was a last minute addition to the bill.

…Opponents hoped — and supporters feared — that threatening to make discrimination on the basis of sex illegal would kill the bill, and when it passed anyway, few policymakers took the sex provision seriously. Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission immediately moved to ban job ads that specified a particular race, it refused to do the same for the sex-segregated want ads that were the norm in 1964.

Not until 1968 did the New York Times eliminate its “Help Wanted: Male” and “Help Wanted: Female” sections of the newspaper, and not until 1973, in Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, did the Supreme Court rule that printing separate job listings for men and women was illegal.  Since then, however, the changes in women’s social status, legal options, and economic opportunities have been dramatic, as Max Coleman of Oberlin College describes in his report, “Civil Rights for Women, 1964-2014.”

As the Civil Rights Act was being debated, a Gallup poll found that only 55 percent of Americans would vote for a qualified woman for president. At that time, women made up just two percent of the U.S. Senate and less than four percent of the House of Representatives. Since then female representation has grown tenfold in the Senate and fivefold in the House. Today 95 percent of Americans now say they could support a female presidential candidate.

Things have changed in the home as well as the House. In 1970, one survey found that 80 percent of wives felt it was “much better” when “the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Today 62 percent of all Americans, and 78 percent of young women, prefer a marriage where husband and wife share breadwinning and homemaking.

Women’s wages as a proportion of men’s have climbed steadily since outright wage discrimination was made illegal. In 1963, full-time working women earned only 59 cents for every dollar men earned. Today, women earn 84 percent of men’s hourly wages. Among workers ages 25 to 34, women’s hourly earnings are 93 percent of men’s. Nearly 40 percent of working wives outearn their husbands.

Women have also made impressive progress in entering high-status fields formerly dominated by men. In 1963, less than three percent of all attorneys and just six percent of physicians were women. Women held less than one percent of all engineering jobs. Today, almost one-third of attorneys and more than one-third of physicians and surgeons are women, and women occupy almost 30 percent percent of science and engineering jobs.

In 1964, not a single woman had served as CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Today, women run 23 Fortune 500 Companies.

But women have not shattered the glass ceiling. In law firms, only 15 percent of equity partners and five percent of managing partners are women, and women comprise less than five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. In her contribution to the symposium, “Dilemmas Facing High-Achieving Career Women,” Joan Williams (University of California, Hastings College of the Law) calculates that at the current hiring rate, “it would take 278 years for equal numbers of men and women to be CEOs.” Williams describes four distinct patterns of gender bias that high-achieving career women encounter.

Up until 1980, the average female college graduate, working fulltime, earned less than the average male high school graduate. That is no longer true, yet at every educational level, Coleman reports, women earn less than men with the same credentials.

Women in low-wage jobs and women who lack a college degree experience a lower gender wage gap than their more educated and affluent counterparts, but they are much more economically vulnerable, and they have been losing ground in relation to high earners of both sexes. Most women still work in traditionally female occupations, which pay less than traditionally male jobs requiring comparable skills. In fact, working-class jobs are as segregated today as they were in 1964. Women are more likely to live in poverty than men, and they constitute 62 percent of all minimum wage workers.

A key source of wage disparities and discrimination against women today is motherhood. In 1978 the Civil Rights Act was amended to make it illegal for employers to exclude pregnancy and childbirth from sick leave and health benefits. But the United States is still the only industrialized country that does not guarantee subsidized, job-protected leave for new mothers. As a result, many women are forced to quit or cut back on work when they give birth, creating a lifetime earnings penalty. Even mothers who do not cut back are regarded with suspicion by employers, who are less likely to hire such women, and, if they do, offer them lower wages than other employees.

Men do not face the same automatic discrimination when they become fathers — and some actually receive a fatherhood bonus — because employers assume that men, unlike women, will work even harder after they become parents. But new research shows that men face similar penalties to women when they request leave or flex time in order to meet their family obligations. This suggests that a future goal for equal rights advocates and pro-family activists might be eliminating discrimination on the basis of caregiving status as well as continuing the battle against racial, ethnic, religious, and gender bias.

For more detailed information about fifty years of changes in civil rights, read the papers (on civil rights for women and career women) in the CCF Civil Rights Online Symposium on Women’s Changing Social Status since the Civil Rights Act. Stephanie Coontz was convener and editor of this symposium.

The symposium authors, along with Stephanie Coontz, are available for further information, should anyone wish to contact them (as sources, for stories, and such).

And while I’m on it, and since I’m a huge fan of this org, a heads up for those interested in attending CCF’s annual conference this year:

CCF’s 17th anniversary conference will take place on April 25-26, 2014, at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida: Families as They Really Are: How Digital Technologies Are Changing the Ways Families Live and Love. Complimentary press registrations are available. More info here.

Where It All Begins

In the New York Times op-ed, “Google, Tell Me, Is My Son a Genius?” (Jan 18, 2014), Seth Stephens-Davidowitz points to new research suggesting that parental concerns about boys differ from parental concerns about girls in some surprising and troubling ways.  Searches show that parents–across the board–are more worried about the appearance of their daughters, and the intelligence of their sons.

Stephens-Davidowitz writes, “Liberal readers may imagine that these biases are more common in conservative parts of the country. Not so. I did not find a significant relationship between any of the biases mentioned and the political or cultural makeup of a state. These biases appear to cut across ideological divisions. In fact, I was unable to find any demographics that significantly reduced the biases. Nor is there evidence that these biases have decreased since 2004, the year for which Google search data is first available.”

Reading this made me want to cry. It also made me want to ask all the smart and savvy girls’ advocates I know: Tell Me Ladies, What Did You Think of This Piece?

Turns out, the conversation was already happening, of course, over at Rebecca Hains’ Facebook page (where many great conversations begin!). We all agreed this is a conversation we need bigtime and would love to continue it, both here and at Rebecca’s page. Our responses are below. Please join us in sharing what you think.

Q: What do you make of these findings?

Rebecca Hains, author of The Princess Problem (forthcoming) and Growing Up with Girl Power and [S]tudies show that when parents worry about their daughters’ appearances, it negatively impacts the girls’ body images–even if the parents never speak a word about the matter. Kids pick up on our attitudes much more than we realize. So how much do the search patterns revealed in this article explain widespread patterns in kids’ own self-images–boys and girls alike?”

Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of Redefining Girly: “[T]he difference shown in this article feels like a canyon in my heart right now. And how are we supposed to teach parents to do better when it comes to the media when they are such a huge part of the problem themselves?”

Marci Warhaft-Nadler, author of The Body Image Survival Guide: “This is really disappointing. It’s like these outdated gender roles and expectations are so deeply engrained in our psyches that we don’t even recognize it anymore.”

Lori Day, Lori Day Consulting, and author of Her Next Chapter: “This was counter-intuitive to me as an educational psychologist because girls develop more quickly than boys in terms of literacy, language development, social skills, self-help skills, etc. When it comes to two-year-olds, girls are often more mature, and appear more “gifted” (Lake Wobegon issues aside), than their male peers. I have had way more parents of young girls tell me they think their child is gifted than parents of young boys. Maybe the Google searches are picking up data related to kids in elementary school and beyond, when many of the developmental academic advantages for girls relative to boys have washed out. Certainly, it is picking up on parental concern about daughters’ appearance, not something my consulting clients usually talk to me about, but something that does not surprise me as an author who writes about today’s girl culture.”

Deborah Siegel, author of The Gender Years (a graphic memoir-in-progress) and Sisterhood, Interrupted: “That piece made me want to cry. Interesting note, though, the author ends with: ‘we might examine whether these gender preferences change after a woman is elected to run a country.’ Wondering, like the rest of you, what else might change the painful imbalance in parental expectation, from within. This shit goes so deep.”

Rebecca Hains: “We know that media portrayals of boys and girls mirror and then reinforce cultural attitudes. It’s cyclical. Other studies show that to kids, it’s really important that boy characters in the media be smart and that girl characters be pretty: girls identify with female characters they consider attractive, whereas boys identify with male characters they consider intelligent. This is probably because of these biases they pick up on, both in the home and at school, as well as in other media. I think effecting change requires both consciousness-raising (helping us all to see our own biases, so that we can overcome them) and media literacy work (to help parents and kids break down and resist the biases they see on screen). And of course it also requires activism, to hold media producers accountable when they perpetuate these biases. There’s so much work to be done, it’s overwhelming. But it’s important, and it’s time.”

Girl w/Pen readers, your thoughts?

Image cred

Boys v. GirlsThe other week, Girl w/Pen bloggers and masculinity studies scholars Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe called us to pause the war on pink and take a look at boys’ toys, prompting a response from media studies scholar Rebecca Hains (author of the forthcoming The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years) and a reflection from me on feminist history and popular feminist debate.

This week, I invited Rebecca to dialogue with me. Here is our exchange. And keep an eye out for some thoughts on it all coming soon from Girl w/Pen blogger Susan Bailey, too! You can learn more about Rebecca’s work here.

Deborah: In my post the other week (“Who’s Afraid of the War on Pink?”) I looked back at the history of arguing “enough about girls, let’s focus on boys,” to mixed effect. You make the thoughtful point that the ploy is not merely a harmless rhetorical effect. Can you elaborate?

Rebecca: In all honesty, the argument that we need to stop (“or at least pause”) the war on pink didn’t even come off as a rhetorical device to me. I’m sad to say that it just came across as ill-informed. There isn’t a war on pink; there’s a thoughtful, measured argument that while pink isn’t inherently bad, it’s limiting the play worlds and imaginations of boys and girls alike. So “Who’s Afraid of the War on Pink” reads, to me and my colleagues, like a straw man argument. The authors were conjuring up a nonexistent epidemic of myopic thinking, instead of engaging with anyone’s actual writing on the subject of girl culture and the rise of pink. I expect better from our esteemed colleagues in masculinity studies: if they would like to engage with those of us working in girlhood studies, and perhaps learn from our successes (we’re happy to share what we’ve learned), that would be terrific–they just need to demonstrate that they’ve read at least some of our work so that we can have a meaningful conversation.

Besides, straw-man arguments strike me as more problematic coming from a feminist academic blog like Girl w/Pen than, say, an anti-feminist source like Christina Hoff Sommers. (A case of “the medium is the message,” perhaps?)

Deborah: Tell us a bit about your book that’s coming out next fall, The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years (Source Books, 2014). Is there any way in which you think girls can be active agents in princess play? In what ways do you hope your book will steer popular debate? And what do you most want to change?

Rebecca: Thanks for asking. The Princess Problem is really a handbook for parents to raise media-literate daughters–girls who are able to think critically about marketing, the beauty ideal, gender stereotypes, and race representation. This is an important task for 21st-century parents: We must coach our children, guiding them to become critical viewers of media culture in general. And yet media literacy is not something that’s a mainstream concept yet in the U.S.; many other countries include media literacy in their K-12 curricula, but that’s not the case here. I’d like that to change.

I focus in my book on princess culture in particular because “princess” is so pervasive–it’s THE defining pop culture phenomenon in early girlhood. And it’s the perfect example to use in a text on raising media literate girls because the issues we need to discuss with our daughters so often differ from than the issues we would discuss with our sons. (For example, body image issues are a very different beast when it comes to girls and boys.) But the principles I teach in The Princess Problem could easily be extrapolated to raising media-literate sons, too.

And yes, I absolutely believe girls can be active agents in princess play. Kids are not passive victims of media and toys; they’re active consumers who regularly defy our assumptions. That’s a position I’ve espoused in some of my earlier work–for example, my study of girls and Bratz dolls.Bratz dolls

It’s important to note, then, that in The Princess Problem, my goal is not to persuade girls that princesses are bad or to “de-princess” them; rather, it is to help parents help their girls reason become critical viewers who can see that there are many, many ways to be a girl.

Deborah: I loved your recent post at Sociological Images (“When Cowboys Wore Pink”), where you concluded, “Monochromatic girlhood drives a wedge between boys and girls — separating their spheres during a time when cross-sex play is healthy and desirable, and when their imaginations should run free.” Some of our Brave Girls Alliance colleagues have created incredible alternatives. From where you stand, what do you see as some of the most exciting challenges to the children’s industrial complex as we know it?

Rebecca: The Let Toys Be Toys movement is doing terrific work challenging the status quo in the UK. By calling for toys to be desegregated–grouped by theme or interest type, rather than by gender—they’re empowering parents and children to think outside of the pink and blue boxes that marketers have been placing children into. I’d really love to see a comparable movement here in the U.S. and Canada. With folks like Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals, Michele Yulo of Princess Free Zone, and Ines Almeida of Toward the Stars raising so much consciousness about the limitations that today’s marketing foists upon kids of both sexes, it’s the right time.

I’d like to see a movement that goes one step further, too, and challenges marketers to put an end to the incessant pink-washing. By “pink-washing,” I’m specifically referring to the instances where marketers or toy makers create a product that is pink for no reason other than to make it as girly as possible. After all, there’s nothing wrong with pink–it’s a perfectly nice color–but there IS something wrong when it’s a) promoting sex role stereotypes and b) basically the only color found in little girls’ worlds. They deserve a full rainbow of colors.

Pink-washing is unfair to our boys, as well: I just heard from a mom the other day whose two-year-old son wanted a toy shopping cart for his third birthday.  All she could find at her local Toys R Us was a pink cart. She bought it anyway–but she knows that the adult men in her family are likely to think it’s weird (which is a shame). But, come on; have you ever seen a real shopping cart in pink? I haven’t. I doubt they exist. Pink-washing toys that have no good reason to be pink–that would be considered gender-neutral if they were not–perpetuates so many retrograde stereotypes about sex roles, it’s offensive.

Deborah: When GoldieBlox, a company initially celebrated for its creation of a toy designed to foster girls’ interest in engineering, ultimately disappointed many of us by slapping a princess narrative on it, it seemed challenging, at the time, to articulate a position that both acknowledged the step in the right direction and pushed for more.  (My feeble attempt posted here.) In the war between industry and better alternatives, is it always necessary, do you think, to choose sides? How do we measure progress in a world half-transformed?GB_Box_BT002_v1_r1

Rebecca: I prefer to think of it as a dialogue rather than a war. I don’t want to fight companies; I want to hold them accountable and ask them to do better. Companies have so many stakeholders to work with that they often don’t realize that they are perpetuating gender biases. If they receive constructive criticism from enough parents and advocates, though, they can create better offerings.

Unfortunately, the world is indeed half-transformed in these matters, and it’s often a case of one step forward, two steps back. For example, we can look at Disney’s films and see that slowly but surely, their representations of race and gender have been improving with time. I believe that their efforts at racial inclusivity and empowered female characters signal that they’ve been paying attention to their critics over the years. The problem is that in a behemoth company like Disney, change comes very slowly; and their own Consumer Products Division isn’t keeping pace with the positive changes within the Studios division.

merida_web_smallSo when it comes to the toys, we’re seeing the same old stale ideas about what’s “princessly,” or stereotypically feminine–even when the products are based on innovative new on-screen characters. That was certainly the case with Disney’s Consumer Products Division’s horrible redesign of Merida last year: she was strong on screen, per Pixar’s wishes; but as her look didn’t “fit” with the existing high-glamour Disney Princess brand, Disney’s Consumer Products Division made several changes to Merida’s looks (see posts here, here and here), undercutting everything parents and kids loved about Merida. What a conundrum.merida-princess1-550x546

Deborah: It’s a conundrum indeed. Frozen, anyone? I’m already wondering how princessly those Anna and Elsa action figures will be.



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


Boys v. GirlsI’ve been struck lately by the polarities that sometimes infuse popular feminist debate around gender, childhood, and toys. On multiple fronts.

CJ Pascoe and Tristan Bridges’ post here last week, controversially titled “Stop the War on Pink—Let’s Take a Look at Boys’ Toys,” sparked a minor bruhaha in popular feminist circles. In their title, and in their post, Pascoe and Bridges used a rhetorical technique that my colleagues at The OpEd Project call “the refocus.” While it seemed to me that their stance of “enough about pink already” could be read as a foil, and a way into their argument, others, like media studies professor and author Rebecca Hains, rightly took issue.  “Does the ‘War on Pink’ Need to Stop for Boys’ Sakes? No, and Here’s Why,” the title of a post by Hains, in response, stated.

Ultimately, as a brief exchange over at Facebook made clear, all parties stand on the same side of the issues here and believe boys and girls all deserve a wider rainbow of options. We agreed a forum didn’t make sense, since it would consist primarily of head nodding. We may disagree on the effective use of certain rhetorical tactics. But we all agree on a similar flavor of change.

Still, it stayed with me. As someone obsessed by the way feminist history repeats, it got me thinking about the past.

There’s a long history to the so-called boy versus girl advocacy in the popular realm. When conservative critic Christina Hoff Sommers came out with The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men in 2001, the very title made me cringe. While willing to be persuaded that boys, in fact, had problems, I saw zero correlation between their issues and “misguided feminism,” however one defined that phrase. Sommers maintained that the so-called “girl crisis” (her term) had led to changes in schools, politics, and parenting that had a horrible cost for boys, who allegedly became even more at risk, as a result.  Interestingly, the book was reissued in 2013 with the “Feminism” of the subtitle changed to “Policies” instead.

But back in 2001, egged on by Sommers’ barb, feminists took the bait. Many responded with what seemed to me the wise yet obvious retort that the war for healthier childhood was not about the girls versus the boys, and that feminists (doh) were not to blame.  I was as indignant as the rest that Sommers, who registered as a scholar, had stooped to such a ploy. I remember thinking, did she really believe some of the things she wrote and said? Whether she did or whether she was using rhetoric to magnify her point, for all the attention given her book, it was an effective, if maddening, ruse.

Much has changed in the 13 years since Sommers’ controversial title first made waves. The field of girls studies has grown exponentially, built on an incredible foundation laid down by the field’s early architects (Girl w/Pen’s own Susan Bailey among them). The field of masculinity studies has deepened and widened, too.  In 2014, those advocating for boys and those advocating for girls are no longer in opposition.  Or at least, we shouldn’t be. Right?

As is often the case on the Internets, a forum as enriching as it can be problematic, when I find myself agreeing with both “sides” of an alleged debate, nodding “yes” to parties who somehow find themselves on opposing divides, my instinct is to bring them together.

Watch for a dialogue between me and Rebecca Hains–-as well as more Manly Musings from CJ Pascoe and Tristan Bridges–all coming to this space very soon.

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

There’s a controversy brewing online around girls and STEM, princesses, and, believe it or not, the Superbowl.

First, if you haven’t already, watch this:

Next, read this, this, and this.

I’m in partial agreement with my feminist colleagues who are in outrage over the fact that GoldieBlox is selling a princess-themed toy. Many had been rooting for the start-up toy company, which started on Kickstarter, with a full on mission to spark a love for STEM in girls. They feel rightly let down that the sequel to the original product (a building toy, with a narrative story) features a princess tale. They critique the manufacturer’s market-straddling approach. Writes media studies scholar Rebecca Hains, “GoldieBlox is having it both ways: appealing to parents with anti-princess rhetoric and then, in stores, selling girls on a princess-themed toy.”

Reelgirl’s Margot Magowan smartly notes, “This is how fucked up kidworld has become. Finally, parents are catching on that gender stereotyping children limits potential. So what do we get?  An anti-everything pink and princess themed ad, which is great, selling a princess themed toy. WTF?”

WTF indeed. Melissa Atkins Wardy (whose new book, Redefining Girly, will be published on January 1), perhaps says it best: “[W]hen we use princess culture, pinkification, and beauty norms to sell STEM toys to girls and fool ourselves that we are amazing and progressive and raising an incredible generation of female engineers we continue to sell our girls short. It is the equivalent of covering broccoli in melted processed cheese and thinking we’ve very served a healthy meal.”

Yes, yes, and yes. Blech.


I’m not convinced the ad isn’t progress. I’ve watched every video GoldieBlox has produced and have gotten teary over every one. I’ve played with the original toy in the Marbles store with my 4-year-old daughter (no princesses in that one) and am still considering it as a Hannukah gift. I’m a sucker, perhaps, and an easy target. But let’s put personal reaction aside.

I believe in evolution, as well as revolution. I’m a writer who wrote a book on feminism and let her publisher slap on a hot pink cover. I wanted people–and young women in particular–who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book on the women’s movement to read about it. And they did.

I certainly understand why my colleagues are upset. Indeed, as educational psychologist and blogger Lori Day noted on Twitter, sneaking a princess narrative into an otherwise girl-empowering toy is an act of Trojan Princess.

But couldn’t it be an act of Trojan Feminism, too?

This debate brings up all the issues feminist scholars love to debate: subversion, containment, appropriation, consumption, narrative revision, mediation, and the like. Heck, the ad will be a great addition to the curriculum of Women’s Studies classes to debate for years to come.

But here’s what’s going on here and now: The GoldieBlox ad is vying for a coveted spot during the Superbowl on Feburary 2, 2014. It’s one of four other small businesses in the running. Anyone can vote, and the business with the most votes wins the grand prize. GoldieBlox is up against Locally Laid (an egg company), Diary Poop (natural dairy compost), and an ad for dog treats.

I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to see this ad featuring little girls kicking engineering ass to the tune of a highly appropriated Beastie Boys jingle hit prime-time. Some will say my colleagues’ vision of empowerment is too big. They say GoldieBlox founder Debbie Sterling’s vision is too small. But while we’re all working hard and searching for the one that’s just right, let’s get this ad—which many of us agree subverts traditional images of girlhood—into the living rooms of all those watching the Superbowl. No?

PS. Debbie Sterling, I hope you are listening. My feminist colleagues want to love you, but you’ve let them down. I get it. And I also get your impulse to change the status quo. May your kingdom, which I continue to root for, continue to evolve, and may you ultimately de-princessify.

I welcome your thoughts-any and all!

kijeomaThis guest post is brought to you by Kendra Ijeoma, Engagement Coordinator at Women Employed in Chicago, Illinois. A feminist, social media junkie and aspiring social entrepreneur, Kendra mobilizes supporters online and in-person to become activists for women’s economic security, workforce development and access to education. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Seattle University with a focus in Women’s Studies.

In a political climate that is so unfavorable for women, our rights eroded and our needs marginalized at seemingly every turn.

On August 5th, three powerhouse Chicago women participated in a roundtable discussion in honor of Women Employed’s 40th anniversary about how women can build power and exert influence in civic, professional, and political life. U.S. Representative Robin Kelly, author Rebecca Sive, whose new book, Every Day is Election Day, was recently released, and former Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama Susan Sher offered salient advice to women, as well as important stories about how they have achieved success and attained positions of power both in Chicago and nationally.Panelists with Board Chair Lisa Pattis

The conversation could not have come at a better time.

The takeaway? Women can and do have power and influence, but asserting that power can be tricky. For women, the route to success and to making your voice heard means walking a tightrope of proclaiming your individual qualifications and accomplishments, while also working successfully in collaboration with other women.

Susan Sher, now Executive Vice President for Corporate Strategy and Public Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center and Senior Advisor to the University President, advised women not to be afraid of, “shameless self-promotion. When you do a great job and you think you’ll be recognized, it just isn’t true. It’s important to take credit for what you do.”  This was a theme echoed by each of the women on the panel.

However, Sher, Kelly, and Sive also emphasized that many women are naturally self-effacing, which can undermine our interests. For that reason, banding together with other women can be powerful, and is a vital strategy to make people stand up and pay attention to women’s needs. Sive emphasized that for women, “The route to power and influence is not a route you take alone. There is strength in numbers. You can win with women and for women.” Rep. Kelly echoed that sentiment, adding that, “there’s something special about what women can do together.”

AudienceSo as a regular woman leading a regular life, where do you start? All of the panelists, as well as Women Employed Executive Director Anne Ladky, who moderated the event, stressed that while it’s important to have women in government and in the board room, the most vital agent of change will be everyday women like you and me standing up and exerting their own power. Every woman can have influence over her life and her circumstances. But we must be vocal in our churches, our neighborhoods, our book clubs, our school boards, and our offices.

As women, we need to speak up about issues like paid sick days, family-supporting wages, flexible schedules, access to affordable childcare, healthcare, and education, and countless other issues that impact us – as well as our partners and families. If we don’t take that step, things will never change.

So get out there. Make your voice heard. Shout your accomplishments out loud. Register to vote and go to the polls. Stand up for the issues you care about. Proclaim your message on social media. If you don’t, nobody will. And if you’re in Chicago, get connected with Women Employed, who has been fighting for economic opportunity for women for 40 years. We make it easy for you to make a difference. Visit www.womenemployed.org/act to find out how.

660b_banner-large-full-color-scribbleAs someone immersed in the process of writing a graphic memoir, and a serious newbie, imagine my delight when I came upon the Ladydrawers Comics Collective. Imagine my further delight when I learned that this collective is based in my new hometown, Chicago.  I waited all of three seconds before reaching out to learn more. The result is the interview below, with three of the collective’s members who were gracious enough to answer my (myriad) questions.

Anne Elizabeth Moore is a Fulbright scholar, a UN Press Fellow, the Truthout columnist behind Ladydrawers: Gender and Comics in the US, and the author of several award-winning books including Cambodian Grrrl (Cantankerous Titles 2011),  Unmarketable (The New Press 2007), and New Girl Law. Fran Syass is a filmmaker and artist from Chicago and recently graduated The School of the Art Institute. Lindsey Smith is an undergraduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a focus in Animation and Film.

Here, they talk to me about hybridity, intersectionality, love affairs with comics, gender and racial bias in the comic-book world, their new documentary film, breaking even, and what Jane Addams has to do with it all.

Enjoy! – Deborah

ladydrawers080111_2GWP: Anne, you founded the Ladydrawers Comics Collective after a decade in the comics industry and were recently called “one of the sharpest thinkers and cultural critics bouncing around the globe today” by Razorcake. I understand the collective began in 2010 as a class you taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with volunteers from outside of academia and professional cartoonists coming in to talk to the students. Three years later, what’s your vision for the collective now?

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Well, the research we use began a decade ago, and I did start teaching a class in 2010, but folks didn’t really cohere as a collective until the summer of 2011.  It’s hard, as a collective member, to really have a vision for what a bunch of people will want to do for even five minutes down the line, much less six months, and our structure is pretty loose. So I’ll ask Francis to weigh in on this too. He was in that class, and is the visionary behind Comics Undressed, the documentary, so pretty heavily involved in decision-making about what we’ll be doing in the coming months. But I can tell you what we’ve committed to, besides the documentary we’re hoping to fund. In February we’ll have an exhibition in an art space in Pilsen that showcases political-themed work. And then for the next year we’ve developed a pretty amazing program for the Truthout comics I do monthly: I’ll be tracking global gendered labor issues through the production line of fast fashion and the sex trade, starting with retail workers in the US and going back through warehouses and factories—particularly in Cambodia, which I’ve written about for years. There the garment trade also raises a lot of questions about the sex industry and the really under-examined anti-human trafficking industry, which is often based on fear of sex and women’s economic power and not on facts at all. Those strips will start to appear in August, and while the first two years of the Truthout series brought in a different artist each month, these will work with an artist over a period of three months, so we can develop a better language and narrative—so it’s more evident how these things all interconnect.

Truthout’s been incredibly supportive of our work in investigative comics journalism and innovative research methodologies. We’re really excited to continue working with them.

GWP: I love Truthout, another Chicago-based gem. Next question. I’ve become intrigued with the way academic theory is increasingly, and literally, informing comics—Winnicott running through Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? seems to be just one example. Women’s eNews described Ladydrawers’ work as “Making an art form out of researching and publishing findings that others might write or talk about.” What kinds of theories and research findings interest you most these days, and what makes comics an apt vehicle for knowledge dissemination?

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Comics have always, always, always been a hybrid form as open to influence from the literary or academic worlds as from the pop cultural worlds. Their very hybridity makes them a good way to explore difficult ideas. But this project started as a way to look at and research first gender, and then racial bias in the comic-book world. We were never going to use a standard research paper format to present that work—that just doesn’t make sense. Still, ranking comics on a scale established by literature does the form an injustice. Comics are a visual medium. Literature isn’t. We can’t overlook that.

GWP: Speaking of overlooked, you’ve noted, Anne, that when you were editing Best American Comics (the annual anthology published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), there was no shortage of submissions by women, but that traditionally barriers to inclusion and visibility carry a gendered tinge. What are the continued barriers, would you say?ladydrawers081611_3

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Well the first year and a half of the Truthout strips looked at the phenomenon of gender bias—and to a lesser degree, race and class bias—within comics really closely, and proved it, and provided some potential for changing it. Then more recently the last six months of Truthout strips lay out the broader cultural implications pretty clearly: there’s a historic lack of protection for women as a labor force, and a legal structure within cultural production that fails to acknowledge feminine forms or female-identified producers, which isn’t even an issue just for women, we see when we start to look at trans* identities—it’s an issue of gender policing being hidden within otherwise seemingly innocuous bodies of law like intellectual property rights. So what we end up with, which we shorthand to “misogyny” and “transphobia” when we talk about gender, and then “white supremacy” when we see the same system applied to folks with a diversity of racial identifications, isn’t actually a single, identifiable flaw within an overall system. It is endemic to the entirety of the system. The barriers are that capitalism is designed to work best for straight white men, and single-issue organizing to change it—most feminist concerns, for example—merely enfolds a new group of folks into this category of inclusion, although often for only a short time. Only an intersectional approach—that considers race and economics and physical ability and a range of gender identities—will offer possibilities for improvement, but the real, lasting barrier is getting folks who feel hurt by the system from their particular vantage point to see that.

GWP: You describe the collective as “a curiosity-driven, open-ended, exploratory body of friendly amateur researchers, concerned with who gets to say what in our culture and how they may or may not be supported in or compensated for saying it.” Any plans to collectively monetize the important work that you all do?

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Interestingly, this is a project largely about, and situated within, capitalism: the “profit” to folks who work with us, while in school, are educational, and then once folks graduate, we try to make sure folks get paid or somehow compensated for their labor. But we’re also open to everyone, and part of the deal in working with us is knowing that we’ll do our best to get you something for your labor. Because comics are labor unlike any others in cultural production: it’s grueling, even compared to film, and no economy has really cohered around it for all participants. We try not to work with folks who are too ego-driven—folks who will take more than a share of the pie, whether the emotional one or the economic one—but it’s all pretty loose. Stuff happens. But the point is: establishing an economic base for underrepresented creators is important, to shift the dynamics of the industry. But to me, getting rich from doing that isn’t.

FRAN SYASS: Monetary success seems somewhat irrelevant to the Ladydrawers ethos, and I can’t find there is much profit for what we do. Though many of us are looking for our big breaks one day, this group isn’t really about that. As long as we get our research across and as long as we’re content with the work we do than, we’re just happy to break even by the end of the day.

GWP: You’re in Chicago. Erin Polgreen launched Symbolia from out here too. My partner and I are currently collaborating on a graphic memoir about the gendering of our b/g twins. Is there something about Chicago that’s conducive to innovative comics initiatives, or did I just move here at a fortuitous time?

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Chicago’s been at the forefront of not just comics creation but of supporting a diversity of creators of comics for a really long time, starting with people like Jackie Ormes in the 1940s, and including folks like Dale Lavarov, Lilli Carré, Dan Clowes, and Laura Park in recent decades. Brain Frame, CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo), Trubble Club—these are some of the most innovative comics-related projects in the country right now, and what we do fits right in line with the ideas inherent in these projects: that comics can and should be parts of larger cultural movements to foster innovative dialogue. When I started the Best American Comics series, in fact, my editor sort of said, “You can move to New York now!” And I was like, I’ve already read all the Brooklyn cartoonists. This is where the real work’s at. The labor history in Chicago, in combination with the work ethic, make for really really interesting cultural production—from the social practice-based art scene to, I would argue (and will, in an upcoming essay) independent publishing in general but comics in particular. I’ve heard it echoed a lot with Ladydrawers stuff, too: we are very identified with Chicago, and I think it has as much to do with Jane Addams—who did remarkably similar research to what we do—as it does with the great comics being made here.

GWP: A number of your members are professional cartoonists, graphic artists, storytellers, zinesters, or official students of the form, but there’s also an aspiring journalist, a lingerie designer, a cashier, a fiber artist, a PhD student in rhetoric, an art professor, and a band. Many have cats. I have a cat. Can I join the collective?

FRAN SYASS: I really don’t know. I like to say you can, you already are, and you cannot, all at the same time. In my mind, it would be perfectly fine to increase the ranks of the Ladydrawers, and if you already do work similar to us or if we do work that you deeply care about why the heck not? However, there is just no official way to grant such a title to anyone, or everyone. Depending on the projects we undertake directly lead to the amount of people we need to participate in the group.

GWP: Tell us about Comics Undressed, the documentary film you’re funding through Kickstarter.  What do you hope to accomplish through the film?

LINDSEY SMITH: Comics Undressed is a documentary project that came about as an idea to formulate our findings and research into a unified piece that could easily be understood and conveyed to a larger audience outside of our ongoing comics work.  To start, Comics Undressed was sort of an idea, a project of Ladydrawers member and Director Fran Syass. When I met him he was still in the early stages of how exactly he wanted to construct the film and the best ways in which to explore the extensive research the Ladydrawers were collecting. Things really started coming together when we decided that the best way to do this was to go out into the world and hear directly from creators, readers and fans alike. What struck us most were the ways in which everyone had their own story to tell, their own love affair with comics, both good and bad. Interestingly the interviews would always end the same way, with hope for the future of comics and where it could go from here. I feel this is what we hope to accomplish overall with our film. To take a hard, long look at comics and see what is being done right and what is being done wrong and saying, “how can we make this better?”.

FRAN SYASS: I’ve always wanted to contribute more of my talents to the Ladydrawers, and most of my previous works delved less on my social, cultural, and political interests and more on my own aesthetic leanings. It seemed like the right time for the group and myself to tackle something that allowed more people to know what we were discovering about comics and popular culture. The Kickstarter we are currently running will run until the 18th of August and is our way to fund the project and hopefully break even financially in the end. The money we raise will primarily go to our equipment costs, transportation and event fees, and pay for our crew. Moreover, the financial support will help us aim for a completed film by the spring of 2014.

Editor’s note: The 18th of August is fast approaching. Help these amazing artists out by spreading this link, or considering a donation, if moved: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1105013300/comics-undressed. For more info, watch the video below.

You can follow Ladydrawers via:

Twitter @TheLadydrawers

Tumblr  http://ladydrawers.tumblr.com/

Check out the Truthout strip here.

Full-page links to comics reprinted above:

Why Have There Been No Great Women Comics Artists, Part 2

Why Have There Been No Great Women Comics Artists, Part 3