Bedside Manners

Healthy Relationships and Families – Beyond Monogamy

A new book, The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-partner Relationships and Families (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), takes readers beyond the myths to explore the true lives of real families.  For this month’s column, I had the chance to find out more from the author, sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., an expert witness, educator, speaker, and consultant on polyamorous families with children who also writes for Psychology Today.

PolyamoristsNextDoorAdina Nack: When I think of non-monogamy I think of pop culture portrayals of polygamy or men with some sort harem. Is it a common assumption that non-monogamy is simply an excuse for one man to have many female sexual partners?

Elisabeth Sheff: The media rarely portrays the full variety of non-monogamy. I study polyamory, a style of openly conducted non-monogamy that emphasizes emotional intimacy, honesty, and negotiation. In polyamory, both women and men can have access to other partners, which is very different from polygyny, the most common form of polygamy in which one man can have several wives. In contrast, polyamorists, with intentions of creating emotionally intimate relationships, differ from mainstream swingers who emphasize sexual variety with emotional exclusivity. In fact, many couples who swing set boundaries that expressly prohibit people from developing strong feelings for someone outside of the committed couple. Then, cheaters have non-monogamous relationships but lie about them or keep them secret, which runs counter to the polyamorous emphasis on honesty and negotiation.

AN: It sounds like polyamory is a very different experience, especially for the women?

ES: Yes, poly women say that they relish the opportunity to have multiple partners. The equality of allowing everyone access to multiple partners, regardless of gender, means that polyamory has a significantly different impact on women than polygyny. Women in poly relationships tend to be highly-educated and able to be financially independent if circumstances require – a significant departure from women in polygynous marriages who are typically denied education and access to paid work. Poly women generally chose the relationship style as adults, rather than entering arranged marriages as adolescents who may not have even been consulted about their wishes. Results of this gender parity are evident at the community level, in which most of the high-visibility leaders, activists, writers, and researchers are women.

AN: With more gender equality among poly people, how does this impact the division of labor in households?

ES: Even though poly people are often liberals who try to avoid sexism, their families tend to be surprisingly traditional when it comes to the division of household, paid, and emotional labor. Some of this is because the gendered wage gap that makes it easier for men to earn enough money to support a lower or non-paid worker.

AN: What are the experiences of children in polyamorous families?

ES: Children in the poly families who participated in my 15-year study are generally in great shape: they were articulate and intelligent, precocious and thoughtful, poised and self-confident. Not that kids from poly families are perfect – they can be just as obnoxious, defiant, and irritating as children in other families. Even so, kids from poly families are a strikingly robust group, in part because their parents’ racial and class privileges give them advantages in life. Having all of the extra attention and resources that come with multiple-adult families helps as well.

AN: During different ages, what are some of the experiences that tend to be common for children growing up in poly families?

ES: Young kids, up to 7 or 8 years old, who are growing up in poly families often don’t even question their family form, partially because little kids generally take their families for granted as the norm anyway, and also because the adults save the sexual interaction until the kids are in bed. In families with openly polyamorous parents, tweens from 9 to 12 are often more aware that their families are different and will frequently ask their parents what is happening. Parents who are divorced or fear losing custody of their children for some other reason (surveillance from in-laws or authorities) if they are outed as polyamorists tend to either dodge their children’s questions or hide their sexual interactions so the kids think their partners are “just” friends. Poly parents who are not worried about legal threats generally respond to their kids’ questions with truthful and age-appropriate answers, avoiding oversharing by waiting until the children ask for clarification before providing more information.  Teens are generally aware that their families are polyamorous and, in true teenager fashion, tend to be defiant against outsiders who scorn the family style. Very few of the teens I interviewed had decided to be polyamorous themselves, most often because they felt they were too young and inexperienced to make that kind of decision.

AN: How do kids in poly families talk to their peers and other people about their families?

ES:  Because divorce and serial monogamy are so common, many kids have multiple parents which allows kids from poly families to simply blend in. If children from poly families did not correct their peers’ and other adults’ assumptions, then they could pass as “normals” fairly easily. When the kids from poly families have close friends they can trust, they will often tell their friends about their poly families. Sometimes poly kids would use ‘filter’ questions — asking friends what they thought about same-sex marriage or some other issue pertaining to sexual minorities — to gauge the safety of disclosing their poly family status on the basis of friends’ reactions to these questions.

AN: Thanks for taking the time to share more about your research. During the holidays, there’s a lot of focus on “the family,” and your book is an important addition for those who want to better understand and support healthy families who may deviate from mainstream norms.

Off the Shelf

Lost in Living

“I am like a car that does not go faster than second gear, so I can have moments of incredible frustration” explains Caren McCaleb, one of the four women featured in director Mary Trunk’s astounding documentary Lost in Living.  As she says this, she is sitting in the front seat of her car, constricted, as she works on an art project while her toddler daughter naps in the back.

The necessity of making art in the margins — of the car, within the day, in the liminal edges of one’s mind — is portrayed in high contrast with the powerful ambitions of the four subjects profiled within this film.  The title phrase comes from Merrill Joan Gerber, one of the featured artists, as she takes the viewer on a tour of her overflowing study and speaks about reconciling the desire to make art, in her case, writing, with the other roles she inhabits as mother, spouse, and homemaker.  This could serve as the most simple distillation of this film’s premise, but its brilliance is that it keeps revealing, through unexpected intimacy and crystalline honesty, the dimensions of a paradigm almost never acknowledged, if even explored.

Watching this film reminded me of the childhood trick of using a microscope to burn a hole through a leaf.  The invisible power of light is suddenly revealed to have a concentrated, incendiary force.  So it is for these artists who recognize they are living within a culture that doesn’t reward either mothering or creativity and makes their pairing a particularly difficult embrace.  Large themes are illuminated within deeply telling moments, literally, as Trunk tracks these four women over seven years.  Trunk frames the blurry moments when each subject tries to reconcile opposing pressures — the need to maintain a sense of identity as a working artist paired with the keen sense of loss — of time, energy, and focus — that having a family also brings. Taboo-tinged discontent rises to the surface alongside other usually disallowed themes — resentment of interruption, fury at being discounted, despair to feel the prioritization of the self erode away. The need to be witnessed, (in all of these contexts), to have a true self be known, is another theme that most women, artist or not, are often not allowed to voice. This is remarkably explored, alongside the desire to be valued. Often portrayed in high contrast to the many mundane tasks each woman performs even as she questions what conveys value — broadly and personally — one of the film’s most gratifying aspects is the presentation of this as a hunger alongside any other basic human need.

The two younger subjects, Kristina Robbins, a filmmaker, and McCaleb, a visual artist, film editor, and vlogger, are friends from college who have their first children within months of each other.  Another often unexplored theme is the vital necessity and sustenance of female friendship.  Their conversation about how critical their connection has been to each other’s development is breathtakingly real.  Later, when a distance opens up between them, their reconciliation is shared on film as they hash out the largeness of that loss.  Each calls the other a “soulmate,” breaking with conventional definition of the term, as the nourishment of their bond is frankly juxtaposed against the demands of mothering. Their narratives begin while each is pregnant and ruminating on the changes to come. In one scene, McCaleb practices drawing in short, timed bursts as a way to train herself for what she envisions can be productive, post-baby sessions. When Robbins leaves her son for the first time to work on a film, her anguish and sense of sacrifice is openly measured against her desire to not lose a worthwhile professional opportunity.

The two other subjects in the film, Gerber, and visual artist Marjorie Schlossman, interviewed in midlife when their children are mostly grown, reflect on the secretiveness artmaking required within their generation, and particular to their class structure, when one was foremost a mother, and other commitments were often considered extraneous. They speak eloquently, and poignantly, about the frustration of having their art unsupported and unrecognized, although both are extremely accomplished.  The gutting force of loneliness is mentioned, alongside its never distant shadow — depression.

The film’s Facebook page is a fount of useful resources, and generous clips can be found on Ma and Pa Film’s YouTube channel.  Trunk offers a “house party” kit with a discussion guide which seems apropos since while the film focuses on individuals, their dilemmas reflect larger, systemic issues worthy of discussion (nevermind change) around honoring ambition, the value assigned to making art, universal childcare, compensation, and more. 

The screening I attended had all four artists present and there was a lively Q & A post-film. One theme discussed was how, despite generational progress, many things (dishes, laundry, assumed responsibilities that are gendered) have stayed the same. Applause broke out when Gerber recollected how her husband offered to quit his job and take care of their new baby full time when she was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Yet, after moving across the country to Palo Alto, they discover they are homeless since graduate housing is only assigned to men. Gerber is astute about the other forms of systemic sexism she encounters as a prolific writer in a time in which being “exceptional” was both lauded and cumbersome. Parallel to this is her keen understanding of the ways in which her fiction — largely about the domestic sphere — has been misunderstood or maligned within a canon that doesn’t necessarily value work centered around women’s lives.

Watching the arc of each woman’s career within the film’s span reveals the challenges of trying to achieve success within fields with no guarantee of remuneration, recognition, or even concrete gain at the end of a very productive day. “Making it” is another nuanced concept explored as the sacrifices of growing a career in the arts is measured against the collective affect on each’s family, knowing that, conversely, there is a deep, personal cost in not honoring this need.  

Interviews with the adult children of Gerber and Schlossman add more perspective, not always positively, on what it was like growing up with a mother who was preoccupied with more than just her family. In a poignant scene, Trunk asks Olive, McCaleb’s daughter, if her mother is an artist. “She used to be” is her straightforward, but wounding, perception. The subjects of this film ruminate on why making art is so necessary as they wash dishes, contemplate what is needed to sustain them as they fold laundry, and talk about the work they long to get back to as they make dinner. Their love for their children is clear. But each is equally ardent about keeping a burning passion within lit, however oppositional to conventional notions about mothering this may be, and how equally central this is for each, if not more so.



Second Look

Learning from Amy

Heather Hewett’s December 5th blog post on Girl w/Pen, “What’s a Good Mother?” hit a nerve. My daughter Amy was born in 1970, the same year Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Robin Morgan’s anthology, Sisterhood is Powerful were published.  Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique had already become part of my daily conversation. I read Firestone, Morgan, Germaine Greer, Our Bodies, Ourselves—everything I could find on ‘women’s liberation’.  It all made so much sense.  My husband and I agreed; we would share parenting. Our family wouldn’t follow the usual gender patterns, we’d be equal partners and we’d steer our daughter clear of sex stereotyped toys, clothes, and expectations.  A huge cultural shift was underway; we’d be part of it.

We have been; but not in the ways I anticipated forty years ago.  Children complicate lives in unexpected ways. Amy was born with a variety of disabilities, some immediately evident, others less so. She tested our facile feminism; we chose different answers. I am a single parent.

Parenting a child with physical and developmental challenges is a politicizing activity. Mothering such a child alone is a radicalizing one. Mothering a child with disabilities requires not only the culturally sanctified female roles of caregiving and ‘traditional good mothering’, but aggressive independent action. You must lobby the legislature, pressure the school board, argue with the doctor and defy the teacher. And, oddly, while these ‘unfeminine’ behaviors might, in other contexts, be deemed deviant or too aggressive, performed in the context of mothering a child with special needs they are considered appropriate, even laudable.

But for a single mother, even this culturally permissible deviance is insufficient. My life with Amy is different from the lives of most of my colleagues and friends. I could not provide emotional, physical and financial support for Amy without re-envisioning motherhood. Amy and I  have lived with a shifting assortment of male and female students, single women as well as married women with children. Work for me is not possible without round the clock care for Amy. This is true for all mothers and children, but it is a need that is normally outgrown. Not so in our case. Amy fuels my passion for feminist solutions; not simply for childcare, but for policy issues across the board. I know first hand too many of the dilemmas confronting women, from the mostly invisible, predominately female workers who care for others in exchange for poverty level wages to successful business women struggling to be perfect mothers, perfect wives and powerfully perfect CEOs.

While there may be no individual solutions, there are individual decisions. As a mother and a feminist, I long ago made the decision to work toward a society in which power and responsibility as well as independence and dependence are equally available to women and men.

But it’s a lovely winter day, snow is sparkling on the pine trees, and across the street children are sledding. To talk of the challenges of motherhood without sharing the lessons in joy Amy offers is only a part of the story.

My particular good fortune is in Amy’s special way of seeing the world. Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat writes about people he calls ‘simple’. “If we are to use single word here, it would have to be ‘concreteness’ — their world is vivid, intense, detailed, yet simple, precisely because it is concrete, nether complicated, diluted nor unified by abstraction.”  Amy never misses a sunset, a baby or a bird. She notices and she insists that others notice.

“Mother, come here! Now!”

“Amy, I’m busy, I’ll be there in a minute, OK?”

“No, not OK, red bird will fly away, come NOW!”

I hurry to see red bird.  What kind of silly person would think it reasonable to miss a cardinal in the snow?

This is only one of many joys my daughter has taught me.

It’s the Christmas season, a time of hope. Lately life has begun to look bleaker each day as we  move further  toward a nation of haves and have nots; but today I choose to believe in hope. Someday, not so far away, women and men working together will beat the odds. We will succeed in creating a more just and equal world.








your ink

Lost in Space: The Two Planets of Working Women

Screen shot 2013-12-06 at 10.11.16 AMThe following is a guest post by Anne Ladky, Executive Director of Women Employed

Food stamps, slashed. Hundreds of protests over low wages, including one in St. Paul that ended with the arrest of 26 protesters—and plans in 100 cities for fast food strikes this very Thursday. A Wal-Mart food drive gathering Thanksgiving donations for its own underpaid employees. Even conservatives calling for a raise in the minimum wage.

Something is in the air. Whether it’s the generosity of holiday spirits or just people finally reaching a breaking point with the status quo, Americans are restless; we want change. And now, when people are paying attention to the plight of the struggling worker, is a rare opportunity to actually make things happen.

When I first joined Women Employed, there was a different kind of restlessness in the air. This was in the 70s, and women were getting fed up with those who outright opposed us getting into managerial and professional jobs. They said we weren’t capable, that we were only working for “pin money” anyway, and that we belonged at home.

WE was founded by women who wanted to change that world—and we succeeded. This year marked our 40th anniversary, and we have plenty to celebrate. In the past four decades, women have reshaped the American workplace. Our progress can be seen in laws against pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment, family leave policies, and the breadth of opportunities available to women today, especially those with college degrees.

But celebrating women’s progress all too often obscures the reality that many women are still struggling just to get by. Although the advances of the past 40 years have given women many more opportunities, not all of us have been able to take advantage of them; millions have been left behind.

One way to think of it is to imagine that women today live on two different planets. On the first planet, women work in professional, managerial, or union jobs and earn salaries high enough to support a family. We have paid sick time, vacation time, health insurance. And we think of that as standard. Things aren’t perfect—women still struggle with glass ceilings, bad attitudes, and pay issues. But there’s some flexibility to deal with the demands of work and family, and women with education and advantages are doing better than they ever have before.

On the other planet are the millions of women who work hard in jobs we all depend on—jobs in restaurants, retail, call centers, day care centers, and the homes of our elderly parents.  Their wages are far too low. 17 million women today—almost a third of the female workforce—are earning less than $12 an hour. They have no paid sick time or vacation time and limited, if any, access to benefits. They get little or no respect for the work they do, and their hard work doesn’t lift them out of poverty. Their struggles are often invisible or ignored, even though their poverty hurts our society’s children, our communities, and our economy.

This can’t continue. We have to say no to having one world of work for women with education and advantages and a vastly inferior world of work for others. We need to shine the spotlight on those low-income working women who work their days serving meals to others but can barely feed their own children, the women who take care of our bedridden family members but don’t get paid sick days themselves.

We’ve cracked the glass ceiling—in some cases, we’ve even shattered it. But we can’t just look up; we have to look down. We need to raise the floor. Fortunately, there are some specific ways to do this, and the recent movement to increase the minimum wage is one of them. If we just raised the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over a period of years—a proposal that President Obama has just backed—we would generate an estimated $32 billion in new economic activity and an estimated 140,000 new full-time jobs. We need to expand the right to earned sick time—and make sure that current movements to block states from ever being able to mandate paid sick days are stopped in their tracks. We need to ensure that more workplaces have policies that guarantee equal opportunity, fairness, and respect for family responsibilities—not just for higher-ups, but at every level of employment. We need to create stronger career pathways by enabling low-income women to get the education and training they need to advance.

This won’t be easy. The fact that we’re still fighting some of the same fights as when WE was founded (read: the wage gap barely changed in the last decade) shows just how long-term this struggle is. But the last 40 years offers plenty of inspiration to face future obstacles. In the 70s, we were dealing with problems no one had even given names to—sexual harassment, gender wage gap, wage theft. Today, we don’t only have words for these things, we’ve put laws in place to protect women against them. Time and again, we’ve made history. But there’s plenty left to be made.

Photo source

Women Across Borders

What’s a Good Mother?

TGMMNest_zpsee9d679aOne of the projects I’ve been working on lately has inspired me to dig deeply in my own backyard. I’ve long been a fan of the many feminist thinkers and writers who have unpacked the elevated (and at times impossible) expectations our culture places on mothers—standards I’ve often found myself internalizing, despite the fact that I should know better. So I’ve been thinking about what these expectations mean for those of us raising kids with food allergies, an increasing population (perhaps as much as 8% of all children in the U.S.) that continues to baffle scientists and parents.

In our case, our ten-year-old has multiple, life-threatening food allergies—something I’d never even heard of when I was growing up. Two months ago, I wrote about how this invisible disability challenges us to rethink inclusion in school for The New York Times Motherlode blog. Now I have a personal essay about the impact of good mother myths on those of us caring for kids with food allergies in the forthcoming book The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality. (Girl w/ Pen founder Deborah Siegel has an essay in it as well.)

Editor Avital Norman Nathman is expanding the conversation and wants your ideas about the following question: what’s a good mother? The details are here:

I want to hear from YOU about what it means to be a “good mother.” The Good Mother Myth shares the stories of women across the country (and a few outside the US!), all breaking down the concept of the stereotypical good mother. But I want to hear more! With each voice added to the collective narrative of motherhood, we are one step closer to showing how rich and diverse motherhood can be. It is not a stereotype that can be boxed up and used to pit women against each other!

So, tell me – what does being a “good mother” mean to you? Write up your response (100-500 words) and send it along with a photo, 1-2 sentence bio and any links to your website/social media to

So please join the conversation with your thoughts about what being a “good mother” means to you, wherever and whoever you are.

Follow Heather on Twitter: @heatherhewett.

Manly Musings

Masculinity, Gender (Non)Conformity, and Queer Visibility

By: Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe

WarpaintCoco Layne got a haircut.  She shaved both sides of her head, but left the top at a length that falls roughly to the bottom of her face.  As a feminist fashion, art, and lifestyle blogger, she was quick to recognize the ways that she could subtly re-style her hair and dramatically alter her presentation of gender (here).   So, in classic feminist art blogger style, she produced an art project depicting her experience.  Coco’s project—“Warpaint”—comes on the heels of several other photographic projects dealing critically with gender: JJ Levine’s series of photographs—“Alone Time”—depicting one person posing as both a man and a woman in a single photograph (digitally altered to include both images); the media frenzy over Casey Legler, a woman who garnered attention, recognition and contracts modeling as a man; the Japanese lingerie company that recently went viral by using a man’s body to sell a push-up bra, just to name a few.

Along with these other photographic projects on gender, Warpaint is critical commentary on what gender is, where it comes from, how flexible it is, what this flexibility means, and what gender (non)conformity has to do with sexuality.  Coco’s work provides important lessons about how gender is produced just below the radar of most people most of the time.  These projects all point out the extensive work that goes into doing gender in a way that is recognizable by others. Indeed, recognition by others is key to doing gender “correctly.” It is what scholar Judith Butler calls performativity or the way in which people are compelled to engage in an identifiably gendered performance. When people fail to do this, Butler argues that they are abject, not culturally decipherable and thus subject to all sorts of social sanctions. Butler points out that the performance of gender itself produces a belief that something, someone, or some authentic, inalienable gendered self lies behind the performance.  These photographic projects lay bear the fiction that there is this sort of inevitably gendered self behind the performance of gender.  This is precisely why these projects produce such discussion and, for some, discomfort.  It makes (some of) us uncomfortable by challenging our investments in and folk theories surrounding certain ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.

Much of the commentary the Warpaint project focused on Coco’s ability to get a retail job when she displayed her body in ways depicted on the bottom row.  Indeed her experience reflects research indicates that different workplaces reward particular gender appearances and practices. Kristen Schilt’s research on transmen at work, for instance, highlights the way that performances of masculinity get translated into workplace acceptance for these men. Yet doing gender in a way that calls into question its naturalness can put people (including those who do not identify as gender queer or tans) at risk. In Jespersen v Harrah, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that female employees can be required to wear makeup as a condition of employment (in a workplace where men are not required to wear it).  While recent decisions have been more favorable to trans identified employees, most states do not have employment law or school policies protecting gender non-conforming individuals.  Simply put, most states do not have laws addressing —to use Coco’s language—gender expression.


Nice Work

We can do better(?): Making Men Visible in Nursing and Reproductive Health, Slowly

Recent headlines such as “Men, Who Needs Them?” and “Why Fathers Really Matter” showcase a growing debate about the importance of including men in discussions of gender inequality. Two new studies from Gender & Society turn attention to areas in which men have long been ignored: at home, in the study of conception, pregnancy and childbirth, and at work, in the caregiving professions—particularly nursing. New research demonstrates under what conditions men’s contributions are slowly becoming more visible and what the benefits are (and can be).

Reproduction: Let’s start at the beginning…or before the beginning, before conception

In the Gender & Society study, “More and Less than Equal: How Men Factor in the Reproductive Equation,” Yale and Princeton University researchers uncovered widely varying views of men’s contributions to reproduction. Clinicians and scientists perceive men as incredibly important when it comes to conception; equally important to women when it comes to genetics; and incredibly unimportant when it comes to pregnancy.  Even now in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, basic information about how men’s own health status matters for reproductive outcomes, such as birth defects, is lacking.

About the study. Sociologists Rene Almeling (Yale) and Miranda Waggoner (Princeton) brought together their respective studies of professionals involved with sperm banks and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative (PHHCI). The sample includes data from Waggoner’s interviews with 57 experts involved with the CDC’s Initiative and from Almeling’s interviews with 18 people involved with sperm banks, including founders of sperm donation programs, clinicians, researchers, and staffers from four sperm banks. The investigators recognized that sperm banks are a unique site for pre-conception practices, complementing the PHHCI.

Men left out. The standard of care in preconception health is to ask “every woman, every visit” about her health and fertility intentions, but preconception researchers interviewed for this study believed it was not “feasible” to ask such questions of men. Despite giving lip service to the idea that “men are equally important” in reproduction, Almeling and Waggoner’s interviewees admitted that men’s contributions are “sometimes left out of the discussion.”

In a comprehensive analysis of research on preconception care, the study reported that a majority of journal articles did not discuss men at all or mentioned them only briefly. A striking example was in the introduction to an issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology (AJOG) on preconception health. In it, the AJOG authors discussed 84 different risk factors and components of preconception care. Rather than including men in categories such as alcohol or illicit drug use, they were segregated. This means that everything pertaining to men was addressed in a single catch-all category at the end labeled “men,” report Almeling and Waggoner.

Why does it matter? Almeling and Waggoner explain that medical knowledge about reproduction matters, not only for men and their children, but also for how we as a society think about reproductive responsibility. An important step is making sure that men’s contributions to reproduction—not only to conception but to successful, healthy pregnancies–are observed, tested, investigated and discussed.

Calling on the Affordable Care Act. The authors note that paying attention to how reproductive equations influence policy can suggest new and different avenues for improving public health.  Specifically, they point to the Affordable Care Act, which stipulates that women with private insurance are no longer required to pay a co-payment for a preconception health appointment.  “Excluding men from such coverage continues to obscure their role in reproduction,” argue Almeling and Waggoner.

Invisibility Continued: New Research on Nursing

One way of improving public health and men’s involvement in healthy families would be to recruit more men into nursing, so that men’s experiences, concerns, and values are more visible among the front line providers of family care. Yet only seven percent of the nurses in the United States are men, as discussed in a new study, just released online at Gender & Society.

In her Gender & Society article, “Recruiting Men, Constructing Manhood: How Health Care Organizations Mobilize Masculinities as Nursing Recruitment Strategy,”  Marci Cottingham, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Department of Social Medicine, discusses ways that health care organizations attempt to overcome the disconnect between “caring” – defined as the feminine sphere of nurses — and “curing” – defined as the masculine sphere of doctors.

Cottingham’s unique study examined the recruitment messages of healthcare organizations, including the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN). She conducted a systematic, in-depth analysis of 32 videos, brochures, and posters, as well as 286 pages of text from campaign reports, nursing webpages, and newsletters. A total of 124 men were featured in these materials. These materials included a YouTube channel dedicated to recruiting men into nursing. (Check it out to see individual men nurses discussing their perspectives on joining the profession.)

Cottingham finds that many campaigns attempt to redefine nursing in traditionally manly terms – such as an occupation that involves risk-taking, courage, and adventure. This YouTube video, promoting travel nursing, opens with men nurses engaging in extreme snowboarding and driving all-terrain vehicles as part of what travel nursing can look like.

A minority of recruitment efforts, by contrast, center on redefining manhood to encompass caring—this video highlights men’s stories of helping vulnerable people. “Encouraging men to engage in more caregiving—at work and at home—may decrease the burden of carework that typically falls on women and may increase equality between men and women,” reflects sociologist Cottingham.

The Coach Is In

10 Feminist Thought Leaders I’m Ridiculously Grateful For

thankyouLet’s face it. It’s hard not to jump on the gratitude wagon this time of year.  Research, we know, supports it. But research aside, I’m feeling it. And thought I’d share.

Between latkes and turkey leftovers, please join me in a collective shout out to ten feminist thought leaders in our midst. They are PhDs, soon-to-be PhDs, and/or serious mavens, all with a keen eye for popular debate, and they’re the current crew of active bloggers here on Girl w/Pen. Check out their latest, read all about them, and post a note here or at my FB page about who you’re feeling particularly grateful for in this realm. I’m always searching for models of thoughtful thought leaders, particularly in the zone of feminist public conversation. And additionally, we are always happy to induct new Penners into our crew.

So here we go. For their mind-bending, evidence-based, eloquent, witty, and pithy feminist dazzlery, I’m thankful for:

Veronica Arreola, who is currently pursuing her Ph.D., directs an academic support program for women majoring in STEM and is a longtime mover and shaker in the Chicago feminist community and nationally. Veronica taught me how to blog and is now my terrific colleague in my new hometown, where we frequently find ourselves sharing a stage. Veronica pens Science Grrl, a column exploring the latest research and press on girls and women in science & engineering.

Susan Bailey, who served as Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Education at Wellesley College for 25 years, and as principal author of the 1992 AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls, is a thought leader whose insights fostered national public dialog on gender in K-12 education and someone I’ve long admired. She pens the column Second Look, offering her reflections of where we’ve been and where we need to go. Take a second look with her at the work unfinished in the realm of girls and sports.

Kyla Bender-Baird, author of Transgender Employment Experiences: Gendered Perceptions and the Law, is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and GWP’s fearless Managing Editor. Kyla pens The Next Generation, a column featuring young feminists under the age of 30 who are not yet established in an academic career. Kyla and I met when she was my intern at the National Council for Research on Women—and now, like so many former interns, I learn from her.

Tristan Bridges, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, book review editor at Men & Masculinities, and editorial board member of both Gender & Society and Men & Masculinities, pens the column Many Musings, with CJ Pascoe, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, and chair of the American Sociological Associations section on Sex and Gender. Together, they share thoughts on masculinity, inequality, and everyday life. They’re our newest addition, and I’m beyond grateful to have them with us. Check out their recent post on bro-porn (think: naked rowers) and the heterosexualization of straight men’s anti-homophobia.

Heather Hewett, who writes about women, feminism, and culture in the U.S. and globally for both academic and mainstream publications (including The Washington Post,, The Christian Science Monitor, Brain, Child, and The Motherlode at the New York Times) and numerous anthologies, is an Associate Professor at SUNY New Paltz and a dear old friend without whom I would have probably given up writing a long time ago. Heather pens the Women Across Borders column, offering us a transnational perspective on women and girls. Read what she has to say about the complications, and the promise, of the global girls movement, and what she did on the International Day of the Girl this year.

Elline Lipkin, a scholar, poet, and nonfiction writer who has also worked as an editor for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and journals, is a girls’ studies guru who explores the state of contemporary girlhood in the United States and how gender is imprinted from birth forward.  Her book, Girls Studies, is a guidepost in the field. She pens the Off the Shelf column, offering book reviews and news, and more. Read her latest (and we mean latest) on the GoldieBlox controversy.

Dara Persis Murray, who writes about the intersections of beauty and feminism as they occur online and in consumer culture (branding campaigns, advertisements, television programs) and whose work has appeared in the academic journals Feminist Media Studies and Celebrity Studies, and in edited collections, pens the Mediating Beauty column, where she muses on the intersections of beauty and feminism as they appear in consumer culture and digital culture. Dara and I met when she was my intern at the National Council for Research on Women; she then became my research assistant, and now I, too, learn from her. Read Dara’s take on Miley’s embrace of the f-word.

Adina Nack, who has been researching and writing about health, sexuality and stigma since 1994 (and winning myriad awards as she goes!), is author of the book Damaged Goods? Women Living with Incurable STDs and has covered topics including STD stigma, sex education, and HIV/AIDS in venues including Ms. Magazine, academic journalis, and anthologies. Adina is largely responsible for getting us over here to The Society Pages, where we are so happily at home. Adina pens Bedside Manners, in which she applies the sociological imagination to medical topics, with a special focus on sexual and reproductive health. Check out what Adina recently had to say about Miley Cyrus, sexuality, and her alma mater.

Virginia Rutter, who has been working at the intersection of academia and media for two decades: first in DC in Congress and at a mental health organization, and (during and after her PhD at the University of Washington), is a sociologist translating academic ideas to general audiences. The author of two books (The Gender of Sexuality and The Love Test, both with Pepper Schwartz) and numerous articles for Psychology Today, Virginia has written on topics including divorce, marriage, gender, sexuality, stepfamilies, adolescence, infidelity, depression, women in science, psychotherapy research, couples therapy, and domestic violence. Virginia is mentor and guiding light to many (including me). She pens the column Nice Work, sharing insights on social science in the real world.

Natalie Wilson, who is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author who teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, militarism, body studies, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of Seduced by Twilight and Theorizing Twilight and is currently co-authoring a book examining contemporary representations of zombies, witches, and ghosts in popular culture. She also regularly writes film reviews for Ms. Magazine and pens our Pop Goes Feminism column, where she ponders all things popular culture from a feminist perspective. Read her take on the feminist pull of Gravity.

I am also ridiculously grateful for GWP bloggers emeritus currently on hiatus or who have blogged with us in the past: Avory Faucette, Alison Piepmeier, Allison Kimmich, Gwendolyn Beetham, Shira Tarrant, Leslie Heywood, and others, who we welcome back anytime – once a Penner, always a Penner, they say.

Thank you, all, for sharing your minds, passions, and words–you all utterly make my day.

Follow Deborah on Twitter @deborahgirlwpen,“like” her page on Facebook, and subscribe to her quarterly newsletter to keep posted on workshops, offerings, writings, and talks.

OFF THE SHELF: GoldieBlox Builds on Weak Foundation

My thanks to colleague Deborah Siegel for starting off what has now become an even more complicated debate over the toy company GoldieBlox.  I’ve been amazed — and disappointed — at the turning tide during the past few days.  While GoldieBlox’s Twitter feed implies the product is selling well, it’s also clear they’re now spinning into damage control.


Despite controversy over the product itself, everyone seems to agree that GoldieBlox took a clear misstep in their reappropriation of the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls.” For one, the late Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch left specific instructions in his will that he never wanted his work used for advertising purposes.  GoldieBlox claims that the song is parody, hence “fair use,” rather than copyright infringement.  But, just to make their point, they have initiated a lawsuit against the The Beastie Boys, puzzling some by this preemptive strike and causing yet more rumors to swirl that they are simply after more publicity, no matter how negative. The Beastie Boys issued an “open letter” to GoldieBlox in support of their product, but also clearly stating that the reappropriation wasn’t to their liking.  GoldieBlox, so far, appears to have refused comment.  Last year, Jessica Valenti wrote about the group’s “feminist turnaround,” and I’ve wondered if founder Debbie Sterling thought for this reason the Beastie Boys might be sympathetic.  Whether she received bad legal advice, engaged in naïve business practices, or this move was deeply calculated is hard to tell, but there’s no doubt this development is further tarnishing the good will her company initially generated.

Criticism has also been leveled at the company for its practices during the making of the commercial’s famous Rube Goldberg machine.  One point is simply that its construction was unrealistic for the ages of the girls represented.  There has also been speculation that no women engineers were actually involved in its making and the “behind the scenes” videos which they released online hardly showcases the girls featured having any agency in its construction, despite the fact that none are models and are all supposedly initial testers of the product.  GoldieBlox has disputed that the Rube Goldberg machine was made chiefly by male engineers, but in each of the “behind the scenes” clips released women are conspicuously absent.  Here in L.A. where “industry talk” is thick, more unscrupulous scuttlebutt has emerged about the sources of the commercial’s filming which has hardly helped the product’s reputation.  The tide has turned from those who zealously cheered the company on to a general sense of disappointment.

Yet, what the whole product launch, from Kickstarter to present-day debacle has revealed is intriguing.  One point of interest to me is how GoldieBlox’s contention that they are taking originally misogynistic lyrics and ‘subverting’ them into a pro-girl message seems to parallel the larger critique of their toy, highlighting what some see as damaging short-sightedness purportedly used for greater gain.

As Deborah writes, and many of our Brave Girls Want colleagues have so articulately expressed is that GoldieBlox seems to have stepped backwards from what was first presented on their Kickstarter campaign, where a very sincere Sterling talked about giving girls options beyond “pinkifying” STEM-related toys for the girls’ aisle.  When I first saw the campaign, I was excited.  And I was hopeful, although there were things that concerned me.  For one, Sterling’s essentializing view that her strategy came down to “one simple thing: boys like building and girls like reading.”  Really?  This comment seemed like odd stereotyping from someone whose purpose is to break down a gendered divide.  In an article last year about the product, her remarks about how girls “care about nurturing” also seemed suspiciously stereotypical.

Sterling’s casual remark might be at the root of where many (but not all) think her product went astray.  She reiterates “every girl you know is so much more than a princess” and in the now famed YouTube commercial the three young girls look painfully bored while passively watching three tiara-wearing and scepter-waving pink doppelgangers.  This phrase “more than just a princess” also bedecks the T-shirts the girls wear when they storm Toys ‘R’ Us in this video.


Pivoting on the idea that all girls are told they are princesses, sold a “princess bill of goods” (and, of course, actual goods), yet can be turned another direction seems to be where Sterling has staked her foundation.  Her inclusion of princess-themed material within the toy, as Deborah writes, and so many others have usefully analyzed, is what has caused critics to speak out and withdraw support.  And this seems to be where Sterling seems most baffled and defensive, with the complicating thought that rejecting princess culture altogether is a way of denigrating girls and withdrawing an option that they might sincerely want.

Watching this saga unfold, what I found most insightful has been keeping a close eye at the comments churning out under each story, or comment thread, notably on the GoldieBlox YouTube page (with over 8 million views, a week ago).  The point of view presented by Sterling, most often, is what has been largely supported, with detractors in the minority.  It’s cheering to know how many people desperately want this type of product for their daughters.  There is a palpable sense of relief many expressed which I take as a positive sign of general fatigue with the limiting products marketed to girls.  There seems to be real joy in finally being able to offer girls something — GoldieBlox — considered innovative and cutting edge with lots of support for Sterling’s “good intentions.”  It also seems clear that many think that giving girls some princess-themed “hook” is just fine since this reels them in.  You’ll lure more girls in by pinkifying the product is their thinking (and Sterling’s it seems) and then surprise-attack the girl playing with it that there’s a new activity literally at hand, perhaps even a new world opening up.


Fairly prominent was still the “so what?” response, maintaining that it’s “just a princess” or just a bit pink and girls aren’t defined just by this.  So what if this is included, as a “naturalized” view of princesses and pink culture is seen as part of any product for a girl, with the flip argument that girls will summarily reject products if that don’t subscribe to this.  More reactionary is the worrying expression that eliminating princesses from girls’ toys is an unfair and even anti-feminist move, that bleaching pink from the palette available to girls is an ever worse form of reverse stereotyping.  Common enough was reactionary pushback to being told girls shouldn’t have pink or this product isn’t “progressive” enough, when, as many parents wrote, their girls did naturally gravitate to the color.

“Natural,” of course, is deeply vexed issue for those of us who think hard about these topics.  For many parents who responded, the line between what girls are being offered and what girls are being denied seemed confusingly thin.   I completely understand the point of view of those who are turned off by the product’s princess-themed story and see hypocrisy in Sterling’s mixed message, which, worse yet, is undermining.  I think the bait and switch is what is most maddening to me, as I wrote about with the Monster High line in the past.

Within my academic work in the past few years in Girls’ Studies I’ve studied what I’ve come to call “fauxpowerment” — products or programs that purport to serve girls (often for economic gain or free publicity) while, in fact, deploying undermining and essentializing messages in the most disheartening ways.  I’m disappointed that GoldieBlox has taken the path it has, although this feedback seems useful as a gauge of the set beliefs that are largely shared about what girls want and, simultaneously, what they are denied.  It’s crucial to remember that while these toys will shape girls’ attitudes about gender, it’s the parents who purchase them, hence responding to their own limitations is critical.

Perhaps new to the world business, (and giving her the benefit of the doubt), Sterling’s work now seems to be causing more negative talk than good, although there’s no doubt it’s got people talking.  Despite a steep rise in clubs and advocacy groups to increase girls going into STEM fields there is a lot of work to doThis ridiculous and insulting video, produced under the guise of “speak their language to lure them in” received such negative feedback it was finally (thankfully) pulled.  I want to be hopeful that, in the hands of girls who might receive GoldieBlox over the holidays, there is some net gain in having them even begin to associate the words “girl” and “engineer.” Like last year’s intervention with Lego’s LadyFigs line, I want to believe Sterling will get this message as well.  

I’m glad to see the conversation this controversy has stirred, particularly from parents who are trying to parse princess world and what this means for their daughters.  Many seem bewildered by which choice to make and fear their daughters will reject or be ostracized if she chooses, or if they offer, outside of the “pink box.” The sense of longing in many women’s comments about how much they wish something like this been around in their girlhoods has also been striking.  


This past week an advertisement for Mercy Academy, a small Catholic private girls’ school in Kentucky also went viral with their slogan “You’re Not a Princess.”  Mercy also uses the trope of the princess in its campaign, but only to offer it as a traditional narrative that is better off rejected in favor of girls taking charge of their own stories.  Its reception was been roundly cheered.

I was struck by the boldness of this slogan which isn’t trying to spin or hedge or translate the cultural message that being a princess is okay for a girl, or even that she can be “more than a princess.”  “Prepare for Real Life” seems to be the school motto as their message flat out refuses the princess stereotype.  If only GoldieBlox could have been so bold.

Mama w/ Pen

Is GoldieBlox Trojan Princess, or Trojan Feminism?

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!