Recently I’ve been researching the life of my childhood friend, Miss Georgiana Fulton. It’s been a welcome distraction from news filled with stories of urban protests against police violence and continued assaults on women’s reproductive rights. Battles once considered fought and won are again bitterly contentious. The 1967 Kerner Report on the despair inducing conditions prevalent in many cities reads as if written weeks, rather than decades, ago.   State and national legislators propose—and pass—all manner of legislation that eats away at women’s freedom to make decisions about our own bodies.

Miss Fulton’s life spanned nearly a century. She was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1869 and died near Mystic, Connecticut in 1967. Research on her life underlines the significant progress women have made in the past century and a half. It also reveals continuing gender bias throughout our society. Miss Fulton was an artist—a painter and illustrator. Looking at her life highlights challenges women confront in the world of visual arts, reminds us that no profession, no institution is free from gender related segregation and hierarchy.

From time to time here at Second Look I’ve mentioned Miss Fulton, the example of she set of an independent woman, the lessons in the struggle for women’s suffrage she insisted I learn and not forget:

“Don’t you ever let anyone say women were given the vote, child. Women fought for that right!”

“Not everyone will agree with you when you speak your mind, girl. Remember that. Be prepared; keep your facts straight.”

“If you want to do something and you’ve thought it through, do it, child. But be ready for all the consequences, you hear me? Sometimes things don’t end up the way you plan.”

All good advice for anyone of any age—but especially good for a girl growing up in small-town Connecticut during the 1950s. The social rules were clear: be polite, smile, help others—and wear a hat to church. When, at age twelve, I decided not to join the Congregational Church my family attended because I wasn’t sure what I believed, most people were puzzled. Everyone else my age was going to stand up on Sunday morning and become a church member. And after all, hadn’t I been the angel in the Christmas pageants every year? Miss Fulton nodded when I told her. “Well, girl, you’ll ruffle a few feathers, I suspect, but it’s fine to do that now and then. Good practice.”

Practice for what I wasn’t quite sure. My parents were as puzzled as everyone else but agreed—it was my choice to make.   I can’t recall if I ever did decide to join the church. What I do remember is that with Miss Fulton’s help I had questioned something I’d been wondering about. The only significant consequence was the chance to say out loud thoughts I’d been keeping in my head and my diary. It was good practice for all sorts of future situations, even if I had to relearn the lesson more than once. Speaking up for what you believe isn’t always as easy as it can seem.

Miss Fulton left Shreveport to attend Wesleyan Female Institute in Virginia, graduated at sixteen, went on to study art, train as a teacher and received a graduate certificate from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union in 1899. She sailed for Paris in the summer of 1900.

In the decades before the First World War, Paris was the destination of choice for American art students. But studying in Paris was more difficult for young women than for their male colleagues. Women weren’t admitted to some schools and were often charged higher fees for the classes they could take. Living expenses were also higher. Women encountered issues of propriety and safety few men ever considered. The Art Student in Paris published in 1887 noted that “while there are twenty cheap restaurants that men can go to, there is but one for women.”

The most blatant of these societal barriers fell years ago, but concerns about safety are as pressing for young women today as they were in 1900. The latest statistics on violence against women indicate that 1 woman out of 5 will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Comments about how foolish a woman is to walk down such and such street alone or to dress in such and such a manner are still commonplace. And what about the art profession?  Today more than fifty percent of students graduating from art school are women, but women head only a quarter of major art museums, those with budgets of over fifteen million dollars. Women are under represented in solo gallery exhibits and in museum collections. We are far from the equality Miss Fulton hoped for when she told me, “Well, there’s no real equality yet, child, not in art, not anywhere. But the day will come,” Then she added, ”But it will take energy, lots of energy.”

Reflecting on Miss Fulton’s life, immersing myself in census data and old newspapers, talking with archivists at institutions where she may have studied is fun. But in the end my explorations bring me back to the challenges still in front of us. Stereotypical views linger, gender violence is rampant, and while feminists have worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for almost a century, the ERA is not yet the law of the land.

We’ve struggled and pushed ahead. We’ve seen important progress. But women and men are still working and waiting for Miss Fulton’s ‘real equality’.



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!

Now that the one day of celebrating motherhood is behind us, many women will go back to silently doing the unrecognized, steady work that keeps the wheels turning forward that make a family work.  With this in mind, it was a pleasure to attend last week’s screening, “Breaking the Silence: A Celebration of Healing Through Our Mothers’ Narratives” — a series of short films made by teenage girls between the ages of 14 and 18 who live in the Eastern Coachella Valley in California, a rural desert community which is 99% Latino, with a high rate of poverty and a low rate of education.

It was powerful to witness the sense of release many of the adult women expressed on film by having the chance to tell their stories, and having them recognized as important, as well as the obvious desire to connect with a daughter, often across cultural and generational boundaries, and to convey how each woman’s opportunities, choices, and constrictions formed who she was at her daughter’s age.  In some of the films the mothers reveal wrenching stories of abuse, hidden first marriages, and the difficulties of escape during emigration.  The revelations of the past are like long-held ghosts released and highlight a hard-won resilience.

The project is facilitated by Global Girl Media, an organization helmed by filmmaker and visionary Amie Williams and doing amazing cross-cultural work in the US and overseas, with the aim of expanding into even more countries.  By giving girls the tools to take charge of media production, GGM aspires to promote girls’ voices by giving them access to technology and cultivating leadership.  This project seems thoroughly in the spirit of their mission to recognize the voice of “the invisible majority, particularly young women,” who would otherwise pass “silently under the radar.”

After the screening there was an excellent panel which reiterated the need to encourage women to believe they matter — such a familiar refrain, yet so poignantly evergreen. Lian Cheun, the Executive Director of Khmer Girls in Action, based in Long Beach, CA spoke impressively of working with girls whose families might still be suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, the challenges of assimilation, and how to unearth family stories when there is a cultural onus against speaking out. She revealed how she began to connect with her own mother through cues or clues such as deciphering a grunt, or interpreting the food served, or vegetables chosen to grow in a garden. Cheun also spoke about her organization’s calculated decision to admit boys into their programming to further recognize and affirm the experiences of girls and women as part of their mission to fight for “race, class and gender justice.”

The other panelists, Monique W. Morris, co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, among other impressive achievements, and Sara Haskie-Mendoza, who runs the program, Xinachtli Rites of Passage for the Los Angeles Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance, spoke meaningfully about the need for intergenerational healing, particularly in the communities they serve.

The program ended with the projection of questions to ask any mother about her past, her wishes, her left-behind dreams.  No matter the cultural background or hidden history, it became clear that silences or gaps transmit from generation to generation and, unless mended, become sewn into the fabric of a family.  Don’t wait a full year to recognize a mother’s legacy — as the program emphasized — now is the time to begin to heal.


The new Avengers movie just came out. I haven’t seen it yet. But I’m a fan of superhero movies. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as a feminist. But I’ve been reading comic books since I was a kid and seeing some of those characters on the big screen brings back lots of memories and childhood fantasies about superpowers. The interwebs have been alight with discussions about women superhero characters in this movie and whether those of us who care about gender equality ought to be happy about them or not. Some have argued that Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch are feminist heroes we ought to celebrate. Others have been more critical. Regardless of which side you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the cast of superhero men standing alongside Scarlett Johansson (who plays Black Widow) casts her as a bit of a Smurfette.


Over at, Walt Hickey has written a series of posts of gender representation in comic books (here) and comic book movie portrayals of (see here and here). In his initial post, Hickey collected data from DC and Marvel Wikia databases to get a sense of all of the characters each comic book publisher had produced.* More characters have been produced than you might imagine. DC has created just shy of 7,000 characters.  The Marvel database includes more than 16,000.  Using this data, Hickey made some basic claims about the entire comic book universes each publisher has produced. One fact we learned from this is that the ratio of women characters to men has been slowly improving. For instance, in 2013, the Marvel universe was about 23.3% women, while the DC universe was approximately 28.5% women. But, the graphs show that the ratios appear to be leveling out shy of 30%. Men are more likely to be deceased than women. Women characters in both universes are most likely “good” (as opposed to “neutral” or “bad”) characters, while there are more “bad” men than “good” ones in both comic book universes. While there are some signs of change in this data, it doesn’t come close to achieving gender parity.

Using Hickey’s data, I’ve graphed the proportions of women in each comic book universe along with the proportion of women in Congress over the same period of time (below).  One fact immediately apparent is that superhero women seem to be faring a bit better than women in U.S. politics.  In fact, the proportions of women in many of the “heroic” professions in the U.S. fall well below Marvel and DC’s universes. Women in the U.S. comprise less than 25% of federal law enforcement, less than 15% of local police and sheriff’s officers, and less than 10% of state police and highway patrol (here). Women comprise less than 4% of career firefighters in the U.S. (here). Similarly, women are less than 20% of the U.S. military as well (here). Virtually all of the jobs in the licit economy that involve higher than average work-related death rates are—perhaps unsurprisingly—dominated by men (here). Certainly, which occupations are deemed “heroic” in the first place is also important to consider. Indeed, the idea of a “hero” seems already gendered.

Comic Book DataSuperheroes are important for lots of reasons. The stories we celebrate tell us important information about the societies in which we live. The characters we celebrate and those we oppose provide us with information about what we value. As Arthur Berger writes, “There is a fairly close relationship, generally, between a society and its heroes” (here), to which Jon Hogan adds: “The superhero comic book is part of popular culture because it can help us better understand what traits we value and why we value them” (here). Berger and Hogan seem to be asking us to consider what comic books are doing, rather than what they should be doing.

I used to assign a short reading by Ursula K. Le Guin to students at the conclusion of a gender studies course I taught. Le Guin is a science fiction writer (a genre dominated by men). She’s perhaps best known for The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)—a story about an alien society without gender. The alien race in the story shares the biological and emotional characteristics of both sexes, only adopting sexed characteristics (both embodied and emotional) once a month. After writing the novel, Le Guin was often asked whether she believed we were headed for a post-gender society. She responded in the Introduction to subsequent editions:

Yes, the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborate circumstantial lies.

Comic Book Kevin Bolk - Sexist AvengersPerhaps when we celebrate comic book universes, we are not imagining future societies and futuristic possibilities. Perhaps they are best thought of as stories about who we are today and what our society actually looks like.  Le Guin argues that science fiction is better understood as descriptive than predictive.  Perhaps, in other words, comic books are “elaborate circumstantial lies” about who we actually are.

Beyond the numbers, however, there are also other features of gender that are difficult to ignore. Men and women superheroes are also depicted in patterned ways that reinforce problematic assumptions about gender. Artist Kevin Bolk re-imagined the poster for the original Avengers movie depicting Black Widow in a “masculine” pose and Hawkeye, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk in stereotypical “feminine” poses. The image attests to the fact that the number of women is really only the tip of the iceberg when in comes to addressing gender inequality in comic books.

Comic book universes (particularly those that have become famous outside comic cons and fan circles) exaggerate and celebrate gender differences.  There are writers and artists who push back against this tendency in the industry.  And important strides have been made.  Women writers and artists are receiving more recognition and support.  Both DC and Marvel have introduced gender and sexual minority characters.  But, which of these characters will achieve fame and fortune is more of a question.  I don’t know of existing data on the comic book characters about which movies have been made, but my hunch is that that sample would include a higher proportion of men and fewer non-white characters than each universe boasts.


*The data are publicly available at Github if you’re interested in playing around with it. The data are only collected through 2013 and only for a single continuity for each publisher – Earth-616 (Marvel) and New Earth (DC).

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, 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 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

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“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 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 ( 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.

rainbow_glasses_by_j_brony-d4cw4aoUpon first glance, men who identify as “bronies” (a subculture of men who like My Little Pony) seem to illustrate a fundamental transformation in masculinity. These men appear to be less stigmatized by association with something “feminine” or “feminizing” (like children’s toys initially marketed to young girls). New research by graduate students John Bailey and Brenna Harvey, however, found that even in a subculture formed around a seemingly emasculating hobby, participants still lob gendered and sexualized insults and epithets at one another. In his write-up on the research in The Guardian, Adam Gabbatt explained some of Bailey and Harvey’s findings in this way:

Bailey and Harvey found that even men who fancy My Little Pony cartoon characters are likely to scrap with each other using similar terms and putdowns to “normal” men, even to the point of using the same terminology, such as “faggot,” to police their environment.

One particular incident was a putdown from one member to another in an online brony forum that read: “Go be normal somewhere else, faggot.” While we might expect “fag” to be lobbed at members of the group by outsiders, it might seem odd that (at least some) bronies use the term as well.

AP_OREGON2_150102_DG_16x9_992Contemporary Western masculinity is in many ways characterized by these seeming contradictions. Consider what happened when the University of Oregon defeated Florida State University at the Rose Bowl earlier this year (to which CJ would like to add: “Yeah we did! GO DUCKS!”). In the post-game revelry, some of the Oregon players began to chant “No means no!” to the tune of the (racist) “War Chant” regularly sung by FSU fans. As ThinkProgress reported,

The chant was almost certainly intended to target [Jameis] Winston [Florida State’s quarterback], who has been embroiled in a sexual assault scandal since 2012, when a female student accused him of raping her. He has not been officially charged or sanctioned for the incident, and won the Heisman Trophy amid the ongoing controversy.

Commentaries on this incident widely lauded it as a moment in which young men were collectively, publicly, shaming another man accused of sexual violence with a long time feminist slogan.

While on the surface these two events are incredibly different, elements connect the two. Among the bronies, a man chastised another as a “fag” in part to defend his own gender transgressive interest and identity and the community in which he participates. Among the Oregon Ducks, a group of men appear to be embracing the feminist principle that Sarah Silverman recently tweeted so eloquently (to the anger of at least a few men), “Don’t rape.” These examples involve men telling other men, “You are not masculine, and here is why… Oh, and I am (just in case that wasn’t clear).” The content of what makes someone masculine doesn’t actually matter nearly as much as the ability to deny that powerful social identity to others.

Now, don’t get us wrong; we are thrilled to see high profile athletes embracing the notion of consent and refuting sexual violence. Men publicly condemning sexual violence are important and can be extremely powerful. But, behind these statements is a protectionist ideology that involves men claiming to symbolically protect women from other “bad” and (importantly) “less” masculine men. The White House-sponsored “1 is 2 Many” public service announcement combats sexual violence using a similar tactic. 1is2ManyPSA60Second-YouTube7-tile_zps0c2a2e3fIn the PSA, a group of professional actors, along with Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, call for an end to sexual violence and assault. Many say things like actor Daniel Craig, who says, “If I saw it happening, I’d never blame her. I’d help her.” Craig is probably most identifiable as having recently portrayed James Bond—a character who, among other things, is best known for having his way with any woman he chooses. But positioning sexual assault as something that other, bad, less masculine men do (like those, say, who lose football games) allows some men to say, “Real men don’t rape. And WE are real men.” But the “real men” discourse may be problematic in and of itself. (See the “My Strength is Not for Hurting” campaign for another example of this tactic).

What all of these instances illustrate and what draws us to them is that they seem to illustrate (positive) changes in contemporary masculinity—young men engaging in activities stigmatized as feminine, athletes shaming one of their own for sexual assault, male politicians and actors publicly espousing an end to sexual violence. If, as activists have argued, a problematic aspect of masculinity is the fact that it entails putting others down, distance from femininity, and sexually dominating women, then we should be unequivocally celebrating these changes.

However, as we have written about before, gendered change is complicated. These changes illustrate that masculinities are flexible—sometimes incredibly so. Masculinities can be prodded and reworked in ways that incorporate practices and symbols not historically associated with masculinity at all. But, in reworking them, masculinity reveals that depriving others of this powerful social identity is often the key ingredient of the social identity. These transformations hold incredible potential. But, whether that potential is realized is an entirely different question. And that, it seems, is the next project: realizing potential for gendered change that does not revolve around repudiating less socially desirable gendered identities or rely on the methods of dominance involved in sustaining some forms of social inequality in the first place.

“Fighting for women’s equality is an arduous but necessary process, ploddingly pursued by dedicated women and men who refuse to accept a lesser role for women in society.” Jean Hardisty (1945-2015)

      March is Women’s History Month, but the history being made in the US is far from uplifting. Women continue to be an easy batting ball for political impasses. We continue to struggle for basics readily available in most other developed nations: e.g. paid family and sick leave, adequate childcarehealth and reproductive rights. As an antidote to setbacks in this country—where we seem to be in the two-steps-back phase of the old ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ adage—I’ve looked at reports released in conjunction with this month’s 59th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). There are some encouraging signs. But progress is slow, uneven; the struggle for women’s rights and equality is far from over. Nevertheless, celebrating positive accomplishments can provide motivation needed to keep us all plodding ahead, no matter how soggy the road. Jean Hardisty knew better than anyone how critical plodding along is. For all of us around the country—and in various corners of the world— who knew Jean as a beloved colleague, mentor and leader in the battle for human rights and justice, there is no better way to honor her life and her work than to keep on plodding.

So, some good news gleaned from reports on progress for women since the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing:

  • The global rate of maternal deaths in childbirth has dropped by over forty percent;
  • Adolescent births have fallen by more than thirty percent;
  • Many countries have made significant gains in girls’ education, particularly at the primary school level;
  • And people everywhere are paying more attention to gender gaps in access and opportunities on everything from health services and education to leadership, employment and earnings.

Sadly, for almost every positive statement one can make, there is a ‘but’. And some ‘buts’ are so overwhelming it seems pointless to mention the positive. For example, awareness of violence against women has grown, but the violence itself has not lessened. One third of the world’s women have experienced physical or sexual violence. It is estimated that the number girls among trafficking victims has increased by more than ten percent in the past seven years.

The Beijing meetings two decades ago were electrifying. A total of 17,000 women and men from 189 countries attended the official Fourth United Nations Conference on Women. Another 30,000 took part in the parallel NGO Forum held outside the capital in Huairou. We returned to our homes around the globe committed to doing whatever we could, both individually and collectively, to implement the Beijing Platform for Action. Many of those unable to attend the meetings in China were eager partners. In country after country, women and men worked together to ensure the ‘full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.’

But the transformative promise of the Beijing Platform for Action has not yet been fulfilled. The Platform was a call for a change in focus from women to gender. A call for recognizing that the structure of society and relationships between women and men must be rethought if women are to be fully empowered as equal partners with men. The Platform affirmed that women’s rights are human rights, that gender equality benefits everyone. In retrospect these called for changes in thinking and action were exceedingly ambitious given the ten-year time frame originally stated. Even after twenty years we have not succeeded. But ambitious goals generate ambitious plans, and ambitious plans are required to sustain commitment, passion, and determined action.

As the Women’s Rights Caucus stated last week in response to the draft declaration from CSW: “At a time when urgent action is needed to fully realize gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls, we need renewed commitment, a heightened level of ambition, real resources, and accountability.” Some UN member states may not share this perspective. Nations that do must speak loudly. Within a few days over seven hundred and fifty organizations had signed the caucus statement. NGOs representing women from all parts of the world and all strata of society must push, and push hard to ensure that the spirit as well as the letter of the Beijing Platform is carried forward.

None of this work is easy. Much of it is unpopular in certain circles. But we have pushed and plodded our way this far. A forty percent decline in maternal morbidity is a major step forward. The progress in access to primary education for girls is impressive. Many more huge steps await. We have done it before; we can do it again. And again, and again, and again!


Girl w/ Pen is excited to present this guest post from Laurel Wider, a psychotherapist with a speciality in gender, relationships and identity.  She’s also a mom and Founder of Wonder Crew, a new line of toys that brings connection and kindness into boys’ play.   

Play is how children learn, which means toys have the power to create change. As I began to pay more attention to toys marketed to boys, it occurred to me that so many of them emphasized muscles and aggression and NONE offered a play experience that encouraged connection or even friendship.  Thrilled by the surge of toys that encourage  STEM and positive body images for girls, I want to help expand the way boys see themselves and the world around them.

I’m a mom, psychotherapist and now founder of Wonder Crew, a line of dolls that bring connection and feelings into boys’ play.  In my therapy practice, I’ve worked with several boys and men who have painfully grappled with impossible stereotypes of masculinity. Boys are raised to prioritize toughness and self-reliance – in my work with clients I’ve seen this lead to isolation, depression and sometimes aggression.

And then about a year ago, my son came home from preschool with the idea that “boys aren’t supposed to cry.”  I was floored that my own son had gotten a hold of this message. These stereotypes impact and harm everyone.  This is how I ended up a toy inventor.

questionphotoChange is generally something that happens gradually. With this in mind, I thought long and hard about how to create a “hybrid” toy, one that still resembled familiar play scenarios for boys, but also offered the opportunity to connect and nurture.  So I came up with action figure meets favorite stuffed animal.  This morphed into Wonder Crew:  a line of Crewmates (aka dolls) that come with a matching piece of adventure gear (dress-up) plus mini open-ended comic book.  The formula:  Child + Crewmate = Wonder Crew.

Right now we have one Crewmate, his name is Will and he comes in three adventures with a fourth in the 4_crewmates (1)pipeline:  Superhero, Rockstar, Builder and Chef.  These adventures were based on interviews with over 150 parents, educators and kids that spoke to me about play that they’ve observed/ kids’ favorite play scenarios.

At first I thought that these adventures were too stereotypical, but I’ve come to realize that it’s important to show that nurturing fits in with all kinds of play, even the kind that’s stereotypically masculine.  And really the big picture idea is that anyone can be a connected, empathetic, nurturing person.

group2bestfavorites_webready-43Wonder Crew is all about friendship and adventure and clearly this is not just a boy thing!  I plan to incorporate a girl Crewmate, while keeping with the same adventures. This would have been my preferred doll growing up.

While inspired by boys, Wonder Crew will be an interest-based brand, not gender based.  And the plan is for Crewmates to represent all kids (race, gender, ability).

Wonder Crew’s Kickstarter launched last week. We’re already over 40% funded, but we’ve got a ways to go. IMG_5037Please check it out and help spread the word!  It’s our goal to not only fund first production, but also to show public interest.  A large toy company told me that dolls for boys will never work; help Wonder Crew enlighten them!

Screen shot 2015-03-10 at 11.59.22 AMTwo new books have recently come onto my radar, both too good not to share.

The first is by Jo Paoletti, Associate Professor of American Studies at University of Maryland, and is titled Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution. I’ve been a fan of Jo’s since reading (and rereading) her previous and excellent book, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Here’s more about her new one, published by Indiana University Press, and now available:

Notorious as much for its fashion as for its music, the 1960s and 1970s produced provocative fashion trends that reflected the rising wave of gender politics and the sexual revolution. In an era when gender stereotypes were questioned and dismantled, and when the feminist and gay rights movements were gaining momentum and a voice, the fashion industry responded in kind. Designers from Paris to Hollywood imagined a future of equality and androgyny. The unisex movement affected all ages, with adult fashions trickling down to school-aged children and clothing for infants. Between 1965 and 1975, girls and women began wearing pants to school; boys enjoyed a brief “peacock revolution,” sporting bold colors and patterns; and legal battles were fought over hair style and length. However, with the advent of Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress and the launch of Victoria’s Secret, by the mid-1980s, unisex styles were nearly completely abandoned. Jo B. Paoletti traces the trajectory of unisex fashion against the backdrop of the popular issues of the day—from contraception access to girls’ participation in sports. Combing mass-market catalogs, newspaper and magazine articles, cartoons, and trade publications for signs of the fashion debates, Paoletti provides a multigenerational study of the “white space” between (or beyond) masculine and feminine.

You can read more about Jo’s work on “gender mystique” at her website,

The second is an anthology edited by my pal and former Girl w/Pen blogger Shira Tarrant, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach.  Gender, Sex, and Politics: In the Streets and Between the Sheets in the 21st Century (Routledge July 2015) isn’t available yet, but you can sign up here on Amazon to get notified when it is. Here’s a descript:

Gender, Sex, and Politics: In the Streets and Between the Sheets in the 21st Century includes twenty-seven chapters organized into five sections: Gender, Sexuality and Social Control; Pornography; Sex and Social Media; Dating, Desire, and the Politics of Hooking Up; and Issues in Sexual Pleasure and Safety. This anthology presents these topics using a point-counterpoint-different point framework. Its arguments and perspectives do not pit writers against each other in a binary pro/con debate format. Instead, a variety of views are juxtaposed to encourage critical thinking and robust conversation. This framework enables readers to assess the strengths and shortcomings of conflicting ideas. The chapters are organized in a way that will challenge cherished beliefs and hone both academic and personal insight. Gender, Sex, and Politics is ideal for sparking debates in intro to women’s and gender studies, sexuality, and gender courses.

 Happy reading, Penners!

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