Beginning today, I will be “going home” to Mindy’s Muses, a blog that I created over five years ago. Over past two years, I have had the honor of writing for Feminist Reflections (FR). I began as a Guest Author, having been invited to share a few posts from Mindy’s Muses. Then one of the FR Founders, Gayle Sulik, and I decided to collaborate on a series of posts about Black Lives Matter, because we felt it was important to write about how white allies could support this movement. After a relatively short run as a “Guest” on FR, I was invited to join as a Contributing Author, one of five writers who churn out provocative essays weekly. Mindy’s Muses went on an unofficial “semi-hiatus”.

feminismBeing a member of FR has strengthened my understanding of the challenges of “doing public sociology” for academic Sociologists. Because I’m an Applied Sociologist and don’t work in academia, I don’t have pressure to publish in peer reviewed journals, nor do I have constraints on what I write about, other than those I self-impose (!). I have been inspired by my academic colleagues who navigate these demands, and maintain a commitment to reaching an audience beyond academia.

Over the past year, FR experienced some turnover, as a few of its Founders moved on. Tristan Bridges and I became Co-Chairs of the Editorial Board, and in that role, I learned more about the logistics necessary to maintain the hum of weekly posts by a variety of authors. We also added two new writers:  Kristen Barber and Tressie McMillan Cottom. I can truly say that being a part of FR has been exhilarating. I love reading drafts of essays by my “FRiends” (or “FRolleagues”!), and providing feedback and editing advice. I continue to be in awe of their talent and it’s exciting to discover whatever new essay they publish. And I deeply value their feedback on my work.

Being part of a “writing group” is a different animal than writing solo, as I had been doing with Mindy’s Muses. When I consider what I want to write for FR, my thoughts are thread through a feminist lens that weaves the personal and the political. I know that my fellow FR writers are available for feedback on potential topics as well as on drafts. Writing for Mindy’s Muses is a little scarier and also maybe a little freer. While my writing style generally brings a feminist sociology lens to issues that I face personally, I also allow myself, at times, to write pieces that are just “stories”. Unlike FR, it’s on me if a post doesn’t fly. And while I can reach out to friends to read a draft, it’s more of a favor than an implicit “obligation” or commitment that comes with being part of a group.

caring for red coverSo with all this said, it is with a feeling of gratitude that I have decided to take a “sabbatical” from FR. I am thrilled to say that I have a new book coming out this summer: Caring for Red:  A Daughter’s Memoir (Vanderbilt University Press).  I will return to writing for Mindy’s Muses, which has just moved to a new website on WordPress called For now, the focus of the blog will have a broad lens – which is care work scholarship – as I feature the important research and writing of some of my colleagues, both in the US and Canada. The blog – still called Mindy’s Muses – will also provide a platform to write about my own experiences vis a vis Caring for Red, and will include excerpts of the book, lists of author readings (including Seattle on August 21st at 3PM at the Eliot Bay Book Company!), and more.

My plan, ultimately, is to provide platform on the blog portion of the website – once my book is out this summer – for other people to share their experiences, thoughts, fears and resources about caregiving for elder parents. My story – as I tell it in Caring for Red – is a universal one, and I hope that my book provides a portal for others to share their stories as well.

THANK YOU to my esteemed FR colleagues:  Kristen Barber, Amy Blackstone, Tristan Bridges, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Meika Loe, Trina Smith and Gayle Sulik! It has been a pleasure working with you, and I look forward to continued opportunities in the future. I am still here to run by an idea or read a draft! And finally, a big thanks to Jon Smajda and Letta Wren Page from The Society Pages, who have been fantastic to work with on the technical side of FR business.


My friend’s daughter, Zoe, came home from school one day and told her dad about something that happened in school. She was in 8th grade at the time, and a trainer had just come to her class to conduct a session on sex ed. She and a boy were asked by the trainer to stand in the front of the room and hold two sides of a plastic heart together. One side was blue; the other pink. You can guess which side Zoe was asked to hold. The trainer then told them to pull the heart apart. When the two pieces of plastic were separated, the trainer told the class, “This is what happens when you have sex before marriage. Your heart is broken”.

When Zoe got home that day, she told her dad about it and said that it was “kind of ridiculous…stupid”. But she also felt weird about it. And so did her dad. He reached out to other parents he knew at the school, and what ensued – once the word got out – was a year-long campaign to identify who ran the program, how they got into the school in the first place, and ultimately, how to get rid of them. We discovered that the program was run by a non-profit organization called Healthy Futures, which claims it is “dedicated to empowering adolescents to avoid the health, social, and psychological consequences of risky decisions by equipping students with the tools and educated support system they need to make healthy choices”.  Their services included – and continue to include – classroom-based education, peer education through after-school and summer programs, parent education workshops, school and community connections, and web-based resources.  But when we dug deeper, we discovered that Healthy Futures was an abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) program that was part of a larger entity in Massachusetts called A Woman’s Concern. Healthy Futures is considered “the intervention side” of this larger entity. Neither the website for Healthy Futures or A Woman’s Concern indicate a connection between these two groups. That can be found on a Christian website, listing them as a volunteer opportunity. The mission statement for A Woman’s Concern’s mission is as follows:

woman concern 2A Woman’s Concern is a Christian mission to women and couples in pregnancy distress, especially those considering abortion due to lack of information and support, and dedicated to providing life-saving help in a life-changing way. To this end we provide competent and caring services that include free pregnancy tests, sonograms, peer counseling and intervention, on-going support and referrals, parenting preparation classes, post-abortion healing and opportunities to learn about healthy sexual values, mature relationships and how to establish a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.   

I was in shock. What was a fundamentalist Christian program doing in a public school? And for the next year, I was obsessed with understanding more about this organization and its values, as well as learning about the different approaches to sexuality education. I wanted to understand where Healthy Futures – sponsored in stealth-like fashion by A Woman’s Concern and brought into my daughter’s school – fit along the spectrum of sexuality education curriculum.

The Case against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs

According to the 35-year-old national program, Advocates for Youth, there are a number of reasons abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs don’t work. Of the eleven states that have evaluated the impact of AOUM programs, none have demonstrated a reduction in teen sexual activity. One strategy of these programs is have teens make a “virginity pledge”, promising to remain virgins until marriage. Researchers found that despite their promise, some “pledgers” engage in risky oral or anal sex, and if they do end up having vaginal intercourse, they don’t use condoms. According to researchers, Hannah Brückner and Peter Bearman, even if virginity pledges help some young people delay sexual activity for up to 18 months, once they break their pledge, they are less likely to use contraception or condoms, which puts them at risk for unintended pregnancy and HIV or other STDs.

AOUM programs often contain lies and inaccurate information. A 2004 report about AOUM programs says that over 80% of federally-funded AOUM programs contain false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, claiming that condoms aren’t effective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. AOUM programs also contain false information about the risks of abortion, with one curriculum claiming that 5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile, will be more at risk for giving birth later on to a child with mental retardation, and that tubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following abortions. AOUM curricula blurs religion and science, presenting “as scientific fact the religious view that life begins at conception”. One curriculum calls a 43-day-old fetus a “thinking person”. And AOUM curricula “treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact”. The report concludes that these programs are a colossal waste of federal taxpayers’ dollars.

The major clearinghouse on sexuality education in the US – The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), says AOUM programs are “based on fear and shame, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased views of marriage, sexual orientation and family structure.”

The case for comprehensive sexuality education

According to SIECUS, comprehensive sex education provides students with “medically accurate information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives, including condoms, as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting STIs, including HIV/AIDS”. It teaches young people “the skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances”, as well as how “alcohol and drug use can effect responsible decision making”. Students are provided with the tools to make informed decisions. While these programs stress the value of abstinence, they also prepare students for when they become sexually active.

A series of studies show that the lessons learned in comprehensive sex education programs are critical for healthy decision making during the teen years and beyond. When teens are educated about condoms and have access to them, they’re more likely to use them. When teens practice contraception in their first sexual relationship, they’re more likely to keep doing so, compared to those who used either no method or used a method inconsistently. In fact, a 86% decline in teen pregnancy from 1995 to 2002 is attributed by Columbia University researchers to dramatic improvements in contraceptive use. Only 14% of the decline in teen pregnancy rates was attributed to a decrease in sexual activity.

Researchers Starkman and Rajani found that one-half of HIV infections in the US and two-thirds of all sexually transmitted diseases (STD) occur among young people under the age of 25. By the end of high school, nearly two thirds of American youth are sexually active, and one in five has had four or more sexual partners. Nonetheless, they say, “Despite these alarming statistics, less than half of all public schools in the United States offer information on how to obtain contraceptives and most schools increasingly teach abstinence-only-until-marriage (or ‘abstinence-only’) education”.

A Short history of Abstinence-only–until marriage programs

Over the past few decades, the federal government has poured millions of tax-payer dollars into AOUM programming. The two main federal funding streams for AOUM programs were the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the AOUM portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act. Funding for these unproven programs expanded from 1996 until 2006, particularly during the Bush Administration. Between 1996 and federal Fiscal Year 2010, Congress allocated over $1.5 billion tax-payer dollars into AOUM programs and a significant amount of funding CONTINUES today!

Interestingly, President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill, signed into law in 1996, included a provision for AOUM programs. This funding, created via Title V, Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act, represented a shift from promoting pregnancy prevention programs to promoting abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage, at any age. Sex was to be “confined to married couples”, and abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage became the “expected standard for all school-age children”; with the “exclusive purpose (of) teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity”. In other words, these programs could not – still cannot – discuss, much less advocate for the use of contraceptives, except to focus on their failure rates. AOUM programs are meant teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have “harmful psychological and physical effects”, and that it’s important for people to “attain self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”

After decades of federal support for a number of these programs, the Obama Administration and Congress eliminated the two main funding streams for AOUM programs. Congress allowed the third funding source, the Title V AOUM program, to expire on June 30, 2009. But this program was unfortunately revived as part of the health care reform package, which continues to provide $50 million a year in mandatory funding to this very day!

Power of the parents…

After discovering the AOUM program at our school, a core of parents initially gathered together and we drew up a petition, calling for the school to remove Healthy Futures and demanding comprehensive sexuality education. The support for the petition was phenomenal. Hundreds of parents signed it! Our main concern was our children’s health. We felt that it was inappropriate for a fundamentalist Christian organization, such as A Woman’s Concern, to be brought into our school. And we didn’t like the sneaky way the school had chosen to bring this program into the school. We also wanted to know how Healthy Futures had come to our school in the first place. To our surprise, we discovered that the school’s Vice Principal had brought them. He claimed that a parent referred him and that he had no knowledge of the group’s affiliation.

We presented a statement to the school administration, accompanied by a list of over 140 organizations that support comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, stating the following:

We are concerned that the Healthy Futures curriculum is driven by a very narrow viewpoint and provides inaccurate information regarding the viability of condoms as protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. The (school system) has a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that has served the system well for many years…We believe that it is in the interests of the community served by the (school system) to be given full access to the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum established by the (XX) Public Schools.

We went to dozens of meetings  – with parents and administrators – where we presented data on AOUM and comprehensive sexuality education, and we demanded that the Assistant Principal be held accountable. Under duress, he promised to review other options for the following year. We also demanded that parents and students be included in any assessment of alternative options. A number of the parent teacher meetings were very tense, because parents – particularly those who were fundamentalist Christian and anti-abortion – felt personally offended that we were organizing to get rid of this program. We let them know that we respected their points of view, but that a religiously-affiliated program didn’t belong in a public school.

In the end we won!  After all our wrangling with the school administration, we realized that we needed to take it one level up, to the School Committee, who shared our shock that a religiously affiliated program had snuck into the school. We also presented our case to the Superintendent of the school district, and as it turned out, his wife was on the Board of Planned Parenthood. Within weeks, the program was eliminated from the district!

With this victory, parents continued to be active in a number of other school-based activities. So, not only were we successful in removing AOUM programming; we also invigorated parent engagement in the school, which spilled over to other efforts to improve the school. I was asked to be on a Sexuality Education Curriculum Committee for the school system, and spent the next year reviewing curriculum which would be brought into the schools. We ended up selecting Planned Parenthood’s excellent comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.

To date, 23 states have rejected Title V abstinence-only federal funding, including:  Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. This is progress, but the fight isn’t over for other states and school districts. There’s still work to do…

states sex ed

maiden madonna maiden

My childhood friend, Gail, is six months younger than me. As adults, that age differential is totally meaningless, but as “pre-teens”, it apparently meant a lot. She reminds me that when my mother took me to the local department store to buy me a “training” bra, she followed suit.  “I had to get a bra because you had one”. We both bought Peter Pan “AA”s, ironically from a company named after a boy who never wants to grow up, played in film and play versions by petite adult women.

Underneath the story of the bra (literally) is the story of the breast, that contested body part – shall we say, the ONLY body part – on women that is multiply-functioned to feed, and to receive and give sexual pleasure; a body part which is also the site of deadly disease for growing numbers of women.

Purchasing a first bra is a rite of passage into womanhood, sort of like a secular Bat Mitzvah for young girls*. And how apt that this first bra is called a “training” bar, signifying a broader issue of how girls are “in training” to be women.

While many women – particularly those with larger breasts – may need or want a bra for comfort, the reality is that bras are not anatomically necessary to support breasts. In fact, the history of “the bra” suggests that they are literally shaped by cultural norms, which are historically situated, including the economic climate, the role of technology and available materials within a particular time period. My own drawer of bras – and yes, because I’m terrible at throwing things out, I have kept bras for at least a decade – is a veritable history of the changing notion of women’s beauty, as seen through the lens of the shaping of the breast. I might even go so far as to say that the bra is an element of physical and even social control that tells one chapter of the gendered history of women.

Short history of the bra

There is evidence that Greek and Roman women athletes in the 14th century wore simple bands of cloth covering their breasts while playing sports.bra ancient1

And apparently, medieval bras were called “breast bags”, which had distinct cut cups, in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands. In the 16th century, women in France wore corsets which flattened the breast and pushed it up and nearly out of women’s dresses. The containing and shaping of women’s bodies continued well into the 19th century, as women were corseted from breast to hip. In the Victorian era, women’s waists were tight-laced in order to emphasize the breasts and hips.

An American named Mary Phelps-Jacob is credited with inventing “the modern bra” in 1914. It was made out of silk handkerchiefs and ribbons, and she patented her design under the name of Caresse Crosby. Phelps-Jacob came from a well-to-do family, and she decided to create a bra that was more comfortable for dancing (presumably at fancy balls!).

Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design
Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design

She worked with her French maid, creating a design by tying two silk handkerchiefs together, sewing on baby ribbons as straps and a seam in the center front of the item. She later wrote: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”

By 1932, the bra company, Warner, introduced the notion of “cup sizes” correlated with letters – A, B, C and D – and added adjustable bands and eye hooks. This is the first time that breasts were no longer treated as one object; rather, they were viewed as two body parts to be enclosed separately.  Bras now used latex – as chemists had figured out how to transform rubber into textile fabric that could be woven and was washable.

bra ancient2
World War II era utility bra

During World War II, material shortages affected the design of the bra. Some were made out of minimal fabric, called “utility bras”, and they were comprised of cotton-backed satin or “drill”, often in a peachy pink color. Women also sewed their own bras from patterns or magazine instructions, using parachute silk or nylon or old satin wedding dresses.

Some women began wearing “torpedo” bras, which claimed to protect women in war factory jobs. In the 1950s, after the war, women were wearing pointy bras, called the sweater or bullet bra, which drew upon war imagery. The 60s brought the push-up bra.

In 1968, a small group of feminists staged a dramatic demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in Atlanta, to protest the oppression of women. They picketed the event with signs saying, “Let’s Judge Ourselves as People.” And they also dumped symbols of female oppression – girdles, cosmetics, high-heeled shoes, and bras – into a “freedom trash can”.

Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant
Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant

It’s unclear as to whether there was any real fire at this event, much less women baring their breasts publicly. But the image of bras going into a trash can was captured in a photo, and journalists tagged these women as “bra-burning feminists”, a phrase that was meant to brand them as crazy radicals, but only contributed to the overall protest movement, which catalyzed women for action.

In 1977, the first “sports bra” was created, made out of stretchy rubberized material that held in women’s breasts for comfort so they could do more active sports. That same year, Victoria’s Secret opened its first store, accentuating women’s breasts as objects of sexuality aimed at the male gaze. These two bra types reflected the complex notion of women’s roles in society. In the 1990s, if it wasn’t clear what the bra was intended to do, this “Hello Boys” ad came out for Wonder Bra!hello boys

While I know many women who would like to NOT wear a bra, these images are very compelling. Our choice to wear a bra – and particularly our choice about which bra style to wear – is consciously and unconsciously impacted by notions of the so-called ideal body shape, including the socially constructed notion of what it means to be “attractive” or “desirable”, and these notions have changed over time.

So how about today?

In the 2000s, technology has allowed the creation of the “bioform” bra – which provides a consistent shape of the breast that doesn’t rely on what’s underneath it. Pauline Weston Thomas says that this bra “uplifts and contours the breasts so well that it immediately takes ten years off a sideways sagging bust.  If you are past 40 with a full cup size you may realize that you have not seen your breasts in this position for twenty years, as it centers and uplifts the breasts.”

This new bra – made possible by synthetic materials and technology-driven design – promises to literally freeze, or even turn back, time! As we age, women’s breasts change in shape and form. They may sag, but the Bioform bra maintains a youthful veneer, or what we perceive as the young breast. The bra defines the shape of the breast, including the tilt and the amount of cleavage (think, push up bras). This bra claims to literally shave years off our age, without any invasive surgery. It’s tantamount to an anti-aging tool, and considered safe. We’re not injecting any foreign substance into our bodies when we wear this type of bra, so ostensibly, it’s not harmful. But is it necessary?

Research on bras…

Based on a study conducted by French researcher, Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon from the University of Besançon in eastern France, “bras are a false necessity”. Rouillon argues that “medically, physiologically, anatomically – breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity.” On the contrary, he says, “they get saggier with a bra”. Rouillon spent many years measuring changes in the orientation of breasts on hundreds of women, ages 18-35, and found that women who did not wear bras had less sag. “There was no dis-improvement in the orientation of their breasts, and in fact, there was widespread improvement”. A 28-year-old woman who participated in his study and stopped wearing a bra for 2 years says, “There are multiple benefits: I breathe more easily, I carry myself better, and I have less back pain”.

So is there anything wrong with wearing a bra?  NO, of course not. And if women need a bra for comfort, want a bra because they’re modest, or want to attract men or other women with their breasts – however they want to accentuate them through the use of the bra – it’s all good!  Who am I to judge? Nonetheless, some women find “the bra” constricting and would welcome more comfort.

Here’s a great piece about a woman who experiments with not wearing a bra for a week, and discovers that she initially feels naked, discovers her breasts are lop-sided, learns that it’s not as painful as she thought it would be and eventually realizes it’s more comfortable without. She also goes out clubbing and realizes that no one notices!

And here’s another great video with a few women who try it for one week!


* A Bat Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ritual for Jewish girls signifying that they are now full-fledged members of the Jewish community with associated responsibilities.



A few years ago, I was on the treadmill at the gym, trying to undo a day of sitting and staring at my computer, when a casual “gym friend” joined me on an adjacent treadmill. She noticed that I hadn’t been there much lately, and wanted to know why. I didn’t know her well and could have manufactured some quick story, but she had always been so warm and friendly, so I decided to tell her the truth: my 97-year-old father had passed away. Her response was immediate and kind, as she empathized with how hard it is to lose a parent. Then she looked up to the ceiling of the gym, and as I followed her gaze wondering what had stolen her attention, she said in a reassuring voice that “he is in heaven now,” and then looked back at me with a smile. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled back wanly and increased the incline on the treadmill. I wish I could believe my dad was in heaven and, as my partner says, I hope to be happily surprised…

She then asked about the funeral, and I explained that we had it right away because I’m Jewish and that’s what we do. Apparently distracted by the realization that I was a Jew, she paused, and then told me that she had many arguments with her Catholic friends who believe “the Jews killed Christ.” (Wait a minute – where did that lovely empathy go?!) Just as I was thinking about an exit strategy, she came back to earth and said, “It’s crazy that people of all faiths don’t get along.” And as I was mentally excusing her for that detour, she added, “except for the Muslims.” With those words, I was hooked again. I looked back at her and must have appeared surprised because she smiled uncomfortably…and then told me she worried that Muslims – presumably all Muslims – were terrorists. Wasn’t it time for me to leave the cardio area and work on my abs or something? But no, I couldn’t leave now because I saw this as a “teachable moment.”

Her comments really irked me. Here was a kind-hearted, well-meaning person who lacked real knowledge about Muslims, and seemed to be swallowing whole the Fox News/right wing extremist narrative. It upset me that people like her – presumably good people – can be so vulnerable to wrong thinking. Moreover, the current array of bigoted GOP candidates – fueled by and reinforced by right-wing media outlets – are able to reinforce people’s fears into a frightening political direction.

In his analysis of why Donald Trump is gaining traction in this presidential race, scholar and activist Noam Chomsky says that Trump is “evidently appealing to deep feelings of anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, probably among sectors like those that are seeing an increase in mortality, something unheard of apart from war and catastrophe.”  Trump supporters, he argues, “are sinking into hopelessness, despair and anger”.  Instead of directing these feelings against the structures and institutions that are “the agents of the dissolution of their lives and worlds”, Trump incites people to blame “those who are even more harshly victimized,” including Muslims.  Add to this the fact that Trump is an entertainer! He cushions his message of hatred of “the other” with the bombast of a reality TV delivery. Chomsky warns us that these “signs are familiar,” as they “evoke some memories of the rise of European fascism.” hearken back to the consistent message I heard throughout my life from my political activist father – that we must stand up for our beliefs. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was a very effective union organizer, fighting for better wages and working conditions for working men and women. But in 1954, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer the now-infamous question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP) of the United States?” After much emotional wrangling, he decided to challenge the committee’s legality. As a result, he was “blacklisted” from employment in the U.S. and could only find work selling life insurance for 15 years through a Canadian firm. Again in 1965, he was subpoenaed to testify before the Committee. By that time, he had become a prolific playwright, writing about his experiences within the labor movement in an attempt to give voice to working people. His life choices affected his family. We lost friends and were rejected by family members. And yet I have internalized – without a doubt – the importance of challenging injustices.

So what did I say to my treadmill partner when she brought up her fear of radicalized Muslims? I told her that the media would like us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but most Muslims are peaceful people. Didn’t the “Koran incite Muslims to commit terrorist acts?” she asked. I replied that I knew that was completely false, drawing upon knowledge I have gained over the years.

Did I say enough to challenge her thinking? I’m not sure. There is that moment when we may ask ourselves, “Am I going to challenge this person? How do I do it respectfully? Am I risking their wrath? Will I feel uncomfortable? While it might be a conversation with just one person, I have no doubt that these interactions can make a difference in changing people’s minds. Maybe they will be more thoughtful or less reactive. But I believe that if we remain silent, we are – in a way – complicit.

There are many ways to fight misinformation and to work for a better, more equitable world. We can organize, write, teach, and, sometimes, just talk with a friend, colleague, or acquaintance. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do so.

I am not an actor or a playwright, although, full disclosure, I have been surrounded by artists throughout my life. My father was a playwright and an actor; my mother was a painter; and my partner is also a playwright. My sister and I were both plunked into dance classes and piano lessons at an early age. Dance was what “stuck” for me, a necessary outlet in a household too full of struggle.  By the time I was 13, I was in a college performing troupe, and in my 20s, I was performing regularly, teaching dance classes and working as a dance therapist. I was taught by my father to find a “real job” where I could make a living, that the arts were something to do “on the side”. And anyway, he told me, artists needed “material” to inspire our creativity. I could write this entire blog just on that topic and how artists in this country are NOT supported, but that’s not where I’m headed. Instead, I write about the value in bringing the arts – specifically theatre – into the sociology classroom.

Getting started in connecting teaching with the arts

When I began working as an applied sociologist about twenty years ago, my focus was on work and family research. As I explored new areas of research, I yearned to figure out a way to incorporate the arts into my work once again. One day, while riding a subway car, I happened to overhear a conversation between a seasoned professional and a younger woman. The professional was an incredible guide, listening well to the younger woman talk about some work they were doing together, and then re-framing it in a helpful and respectful way. vsaI leaned over to her and commented that she was a great mentor. This brief encounter turned into a four-year working relationship, starting with acting as a coach and support to my new friend who worked for the national organization, VSA arts, an international organization* that focuses on arts and disability. My initial role as coach broadened into helping the organization with strategic planning and eventually studying the impact of a VSA arts’ artist-in-residence program which was taking place in “inclusive” classrooms, classrooms including children of all abilities. Later, I became a trainer for VSA arts, travelling to a number of their state affiliate organizations around the country and teaching evaluation research, as well as how to build strategic partnerships. The training we did always incorporated arts activities, and I could see that teaching “in and through” the arts was a powerful medium.

When I started teaching sociology courses, I wanted to build on what I had learned doing training for VSA arts. I started experimenting with using theatre as a tool to teach gender theory in a feminist theory class. While there are, no doubt, many activities one can do with theatre, including taking students on field trips to a local playhouse or supporting their research on plays that deal with gender issues, I have chosen a more hands-on method. When I have used theatre in the classroom, students take on acting out several scenes of a play and use their understanding of the characters as a means to apply gender theory.

In this post, I describe a few of the plays and methods I have used.  While my teaching goal is to help students develop a deeper understanding of gender theories, I have also used this technique in a Sociology of Aging class, which was very effective, and I believe that many areas of analyses can be explored through the use of theatre.

Teaching gender theory through the arts

I first considered the idea of using theatre as a means to teach gender theory when I was teaching Sociology of Sex and Gender.  Having taught feminist theory in a fairly traditional way, I wanted to experiment with finding a way to make gender theory come alive. I called my dad and asked him what plays he thought would work, and he immediately suggested “The Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams.  As you may know, this play focuses on the frail character of Laura who collects glass objects (her “menagerie”). Her mother, driven by fears that her Laura will become a spinster, pressures her son to bring home a coworker as a possible suitor. With an exaggerated Southern etiquette, the mother welcomes this “gentleman caller,” hoping that he will woo Laura and save her from a life of loneliness. The visitor is very kind and somewhat pitying, but finds Laura’s quirky obsession with glass objects intriguing. There is plenty of gender food for thought in this play, and it is truly a classic.

The second play that I have used is “Gut Girls,” a contemporary play written by British author, Sarah Daniels. I used this play for a course called “Gender, Work and Public Policy.” In this case, I wanted a play that centered on the experience of work, and which also had a lot to say about gender and class. The gut girls in Daniels’ play are slaughterhouse workers in late 19th century England. They are feisty, funny and irreverent working-class women who, in their own ways, understand their oppression and exploitation. We meet these women in their messy workplace, and find out how “gutsy” they are, as they exchange banter while doing their jobs. The “plot thickens” when an upper-class woman visits the gut girls at their workplace, deigning to enter their world of blood and entrails. She is appalled at their working conditions, and also takes pity on them, and decides to sets up a social club to teach them manners.

Ultimately, we discover that the upper-class woman’s motives are twisted, as she gets them to work as domestics, considered more “refined” work, or more appropriate for women. Among the gut girls is a woman trying to unionize the group, another who lives in a home for wayward girls, and so on. Students take on the various roles of these gut girls with great gusto! They love to struggle with the working class British accents, and swear and cajole one another about offal (or guts). It is, at the very least, a heck of an icebreaker for any class.

Some suggestions for how to use theatre in the classroom

Here are some more specifics regarding how I approached getting started and implementing this methodology of using theatre with students.

1. Finding a play

First of all, I select a play that deals with gender issues. (One could argue that all plays could be construed as dealing with gender issues.) Short of having a family member who can act as a resource, there are many ways to research options. For example, a store called Baker’s Plays has a website (, which allows you to search for plays by type or title, and then you can purchase the plays from them at a very reasonable price. Or you could contact a local theatre or even a theatre department in your university/college, for advice. Also, the Drama Book Shop in New York has a website (, with up-to-date information about plays and more. To find “Gut Girls,” I emailed chairs of theatre departments around the country, explaining the kind of play I needed and why, and was pleasantly surprised that they took my request seriously. Interestingly, a number of them suggested this play. I had no problem finding the play on the web, but finding a physical copy was not easy. This is how I discovered Baker’s Plays, and they had the play. (Some plays, including “Gut Girls,” cannot be found in your average bookstore. More popular plays are easier to track down at a chain or independent bookstore.)

2. Finding a scene from the play

So far, I have not used the entire play; rather, I select several scenes that capture the essence of the play and also include the number of characters needed to include students in the “production.” I try to keep the reading to about 30-45 minutes, so doing a rehearsal reading on your own may be useful.

3. Introducing the idea to your class

On the first day of class, part of my introduction to the course involves handing out the script and asking students to volunteer to “play” whatever character they choose. This achieves two purposes:  I find it facilitates student bonding early on in the semester, and it also solicits commitment to the course.

4.  Students prepare for their mini-production

When I use this method in a small class, everyone can have a part in the play. When the class is larger, I get volunteers, who will then “perform” it for their peers. In my experience, being in the play is very exciting (and perhaps preferable), but observing a play reading is still a great experience for students.  In one larger class where I used this method, it turned out that the volunteers were extremely talented drama students and the rest of the class was treated to a professional performance! After students have been introduced to the play and have selected their character (that is, if they have a character), I encourage them to go through their script and highlight their lines before the next class when they do the play reading. The class is also assigned readings on gender theory, which they must also complete by the next class.

5. The production

I find that students take the production very seriously. They come prepared, even if they stumble over some of their lines. When it really clicks, they work at relating to each other as characters, rather than just reading their lines. At the same time, because this isn’t a professional production, I find that students will laugh at a funny part or groan or comment at something particularly sad or difficult. At the end, we applaud! Often students want to continue reading beyond the selected scene, which I figure is a good sign, but I do stop them so we can get on to the analysis.  It’s mainly a time issue.

6. Small group discussion

First, I ask students how they felt to be the characters they played. I also ask them their general observations about the other characters. Then, students break into small groups for 15-20 minutes, and work on applying a theoretical perspective (e.g., biological determinism, gender as social construction) to the characters and their actions. I ask them to focus on one theory, because the task of thinking about the play in the context of doing a theoretical analysis can be fairly complex. While presumably they have done assigned readings on gender theories, I hand out a one-page description of several theories, which they use as a guide.

7. Large group discussion

When small groups have finished talking, they come back to the larger group and a representative from the group presents their group’s analysis. We then open it up for discussion, comparing and contrasting the gender theories, in the context of the play.

Using theatre in this way is fun and productive. I believe that it enhances students’ understanding of the theories they are discussing. In many of the classes I teach, students ultimately learn to apply their analyses of gender issues to their own lives, taking the understanding of the personal to a broader level that often involves an understanding of the intersection of sociology, psychology, economics and political science. Using theatre early on in the semester is one way to provide an opportunity to take students into the realm of human experience – through their characters – as a bridge to better understanding their own lives.

If using theatre in the classroom moves you, but you have some questions about how to make it happen, feel free to ask them in the comments section, and I promise that I’ll respond!

*VSA arts is now merged within the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

  1. Paid parental leave

Enough is enough! It is way past time to pass a paid parental leave law in the US. Nearly every other country in the world has this policy, including countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Bill Clinton approved the passage of an UNPAID parental leave law in 1993, called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), after then-President Bush had vetoed an unpaid leave bill a couple of times. The business community went bonkers about the FMLA, claiming that it would cut into profit and slow down business, but guess what? Life went on with no serious consequences. The only problem is that nearly half of the work force isn’t eligible to use the policy (e.g., workers in small businesses). And while the policy was designed to be gender-neutral – meaning that women and men could take time off from paid work to care for a young child – women are the primary users. There are a few reasons why:

  • Women generally earn less than men (pay inequity), and so when a family, even one that seeks shared parenting, is making a decision about who will be primary parent, it makes economic sense for women to be the prime policy users.
  • Women are still considered more nurturing and therefore more deserving of taking time off from paid work to care for a young child.
  • There is still a stigma against men who prioritize carrying for a young child. Talk to male workers in Sweden – a country where men take an average of four months paid leave – and they’ll tell you that it is valued in their culture, and great to be equal partners in caring for young ones. The myth that men lack the capacity to be nurturing is blown by Swedish dads (and more and more US dads, including Ann-Marie Slaughter’s husband, and many more dads throughout the world!).
  1. Universal early education and care

When I first moved to Boston in 1980, I worked for a Massachusetts Senator named Jack Backman, who filed a universal child care bill. People laughed at him because the notion of “universal child care for all” seemed pie-in-the-sky. “There goes Jack”, was the banter at the time. But he was a radical visionary for his time, and believed that all children deserved the option of early education and care. At the time, I worked with a band of child care teachers/activists who supported Jack’s bill. The then-Governor, Ed King, called child care a “Cadillac service”, in other words, something superfluous – because women were expected to be primary caregivers for their children. But even then, 35 years ago, this view was way out of sync with the reality of women in the labor force, and especially the rise of mothers – about ½ of all mothers with infants and around ¾ of mothers with children under 5 – who continued to work for pay after their babies were born.

Fast forward a few decades and we are STILL in a quagmire about providing universal pre-kindergarten services. The problem is not in the research. There are enough studies to prove the point to a toddler.

Alas, all the research about the benefits of early education and care falls on deaf ears in many states and localities. In my own state of Massachusetts, low income families are eligible for pre-kindergarten (or pre-k) subsidies from the state, but there aren’t enough “slots” to go around. Over 16,000 kids are on the state’s waiting list. Governor Charlie Baker supports a “targeted investment” on early childhood education programs, focusing on low-income communities.

But he misses the point of universal programs – that when everyone is eligible, there is broad support for a program. When only poor people are eligible, support is more limited. Instead of supporting pre-k, Baker, who sits on the board of the Phoenix Charter Academy Network, wants to prioritize funding more charter schools, which some argue undercuts funding for public schools and doesn’t result in “better performing” students anyway. But pitting early childhood education funding against K-12 funding is getting away from the point! High quality early childhood education has proven benefits for kids, and it allows parents to work, so it’s good for the economy.

  1. Flexible work policies

These policies include flexibility WHEN we work and WHERE we work. They range from part-time work to flextime to telecommuting to job-sharing. Parents coming back from leave-time often appreciate being able to phase back into a full-time schedule (or even come back to part-time work), and workers with elder parents appreciate flexibility in scheduling, allowing them to juggle their care with work demands so that they can maintain their work productivity while attending to personal demands. But flexible work arrangements benefit all workers, regardless of caregiving responsibilities. While a number of companies have flexible work policies, they are not universally offered benefits. When a workplace doesn’t offer flexible work policies, the act of requesting to work flexibly is framed as a personal need and up to the discretion of a manager. In a study I directed at Boston College Center for Work & Family on flexible work policies, we learned that they increase employee satisfaction, and they have a positive effect on worker productivity. We need policies at the federal and local levels that encourage flexibility in the workplace.

  1. Pay equity

In 2014, U.S. women working full time in the paid labor force were paid on average 79 percent of what men were paid, a gap of 21 percent. For people of color, the wage gap is even worse: African-American women earn 69 cents for every dollar paid men, and Latinas earn just 58 cents on the dollar compared to Latino men. The disparity grows wider when these women are compared to non-Hispanic white men.

The wage gap varies from state to state, with women in Louisiana, Utah and Wyoming experiencing the widest gap (65, 67 and 69% respectively, in relation to men’s wages), and women in D.C., New York and Hawai’i experiencing a smaller gap (90, 87, 86 respectively, in relation to men’s wages). The gap between women’s and men’s wages has narrowed since the 1970s, due largely to women’s progress in education and workforce participation and to men’s wages rising at a slower rate.

Seventy percent of mothers with children under 18 of age are in the paid labor force. Becoming a parent often has different outcomes for women and men. Taking time away from the workforce or working fewer hours, both of which are more common for mothers than fathers, hurts earnings. A report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), called Behind the Pay Gap, found that 10 years after college graduation, “23 percent of mothers were out of the workforce, and 17 percent worked part time. Among fathers, only 1 percent were out of the workforce, and only 2 percent worked part time”. While many mothers who leave the paid labor force do return full-time, they may encounter a “motherhood penalty”, in which they are perceived as less competent; and they are offered a lower salary compared to women without children. In contrast, fathers rarely take parental leave time; if they do, it’s roughly two weeks, and they do not suffer a penalty compared with other men. In fact, some research demonstrates that fathers actually receive a wage premium after having a child! While being a mother in the paid labor force doesn’t fully explain the gendered wage gap, it does have a measurable impact.

So in a sense, pay equity and paid parental leave are inherently connected. Even if taking time for parenting were the norm for women and men, it still makes more economic sense for the “lesser” earner to take advantage of an unpaid parental leave policy. If we had paid leave AND pay equity, the decision to take a parental leave wouldn’t be driven by economics.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009, states that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination resets with each new paycheck affected by that discriminatory action, which creates more opportunity for employees who experience gendered wage discrimination to file lawsuits. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act has made a difference in “keeping the courthouse doors open so victims of discrimination have the opportunity to challenge unfair pay.”

But in recent years, progress has stalled, and it is clear that the pay gap will not disappear without policy intervention. The National Women’s Law Center says that the laws are weakened by a number of factors, including “a series of other court decisions that have opened loopholes in the law and by insufficient federal tools to detect and combat pay discrimination.”

Moreover, “too often wage disparities go undetected because employers maintain policies that punish employees who voluntarily share salary information with their coworkers. Efforts to ensure that workers really can address and remedy pay discrimination are far from complete”.

The Center says Congress needs to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to end pay discrimination “once and for all”.

  1. Reproductive rights, or more broadly, the right to sexual and reproductive health

Why are reproductive rights a work and family issue? The right to regulate if, when and where one has a child is critical to women’s financial and emotional independence and, it can be argued, in some cases, for women’s survival. The decision to have a child is a major life change for any family, one that has major ramifications, both emotionally and financially. The decision to not have a child must be a woman’s prerogative. If women are to achieve equality in all facets of life (borrowing from the World Health Organization’s language on sexual and reproductive health), we must have contraceptive choice and safety and infertility services; improved maternal and new born health; reduced sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and other reproductive morbidities; the elimination of unsafe abortion and the provision of post-abortion care; and the promotion of healthy sexuality, including adolescent health, and reducing harmful practices.

Taken together, these policies would make a real difference in moving forward a feminist work and family agenda.

Mindy Fried:  “New Chapters”…

This is the second year that Feminist Reflection editors have tried to write something about Thanksgiving. I say “tried” because for something that seems simple, we have found that it’s not an easy charge. Here is a holiday that calls upon people to feel thankful for what we have, but we can’t ignore the fact that the holiday is framed around a distortion of American history that is, in actuality, about genocide. So I will start out by saying that I’m grateful for a very funny, but informative, web video, De-Coded, created by actress/comedian Francesca Ramsey, where she sets her family straight about Thanksgiving.

As guests admire a child’s drawing showing Native Americans and Pilgrims sharing a meal, one person reads the picture’s text: “After the Native Americans helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter in America, the Puritans invited them to share the first Thanksgiving dinner.” Guests pass the child’s drawing around the table, with approving oohs and ahh’s until it gets to Francesca, who holds up the child’s picture and says slowly, “These are adorably…WRONG!” She rips the drawing in two, to their shock, and then provides her family with the real history lesson about the genocide of the Native Americans by the Pilgrims, using humor as her weapon. By the time she has deconstructed the real meaning of the holiday, family members start questioning the meaning of everything, even the cranberry sauce! Lesson learned; humor prevails.

When we at FR think about what to write, we’re initially up against our despair, not only about the lies about this holiday, but about what a mess our world is in:  rampant Islamaphobia following the Paris attacks, pervasive racism throughout our communities and on our college campuses, the all-out attack on women’s reproductive rights and so much more…  At the same time, we feel lucky that we can enjoy the pleasure of our families, our friends, our teaching and research, and our communities. That’s a privilege that not everyone has…

So we write this Thanksgiving post with the understanding that so much is wrong with the world, but that we have an opportunity to notice what is good; to put down our cell phones and (momentarily) walk away from our computers and maybe even other technology, to enjoy a minute, an hour, a day where we can be grateful for what we have. Because regardless of the holiday’s history, it is important in these difficult times to appreciate one another and our loved ones, to appreciate the food we share, to be joyful, to sing and dance in ways that move our hearts, to take joy in the people around us, including young and old, to recognize our accomplishments along with our struggles, to feel our connectedness along with our isolation. And certainly, to recognize the opportunity we have to make this world a better place, in whatever way we can.

Athieno Band; Photo Credit: Olivia Deng
Athieno Band; Photo Credit: Olivia Deng

What am I grateful for this year? Over the past two years, I have taken a leap and started producing music and art festivals with a dear friend. It began with the organizing of Jamaica Plain Porchfest, a decentralized music/arts festival in which people perform on porches throughout the community. Previously, my work kept me tethered to my computer, a meeting room, and sometimes a classroom. This work has grown into producing other community-based events throughout the City of Boston where I live. I am deeply grateful to be living this new chapter in my life, one that allows me to work with artists, other producers, and inspiring community activists who also see the value in using the arts to grow social movements.

And now on to my wonderful colleagues, for whom I am very grateful!

Kristen Barber: “Motherhood”

These days I am more thankful than ever. Having welcomed our daughter into our lives, my spouse and I now find the mundane more thrilling (albeit more exhausting). I am also reminded of my privilege more often than before. When I feed Bea a bottle of formula, change her soiled diaper, or buy her a new winter coat, I think of those parents who cannot afford to do the same for their children.

Other women who are not as privileged as I am remind me that I can feed my child without having to bear the evaluative eye of a state service worker rationing out formula and that I am buying premium formula. Moreover, I don’t have to scrape the waste from Bea’s diaper in an effort to make it last longer, I can feed her every time she cries in hunger, and I can pay my heating bill to keep her warm.

Below are some child welfare organizations helping to provide needy families with those items—like food, diapers, and coats—that babies and children need to stay healthy and warm year round. Go ahead and click on the below links for more information and, in the spirit of thanksgiving, consider supporting these organizations (and by extension struggling parents and their children), if you can.

  • National Diaper Bank Network: Directory to find a diaper bank that distributes diapers to families in your area. Disposable diapers cost $70 to $80 per month per baby and 1 in 3 American families report experiencing diaper need.
  • Feeding America: Largest nationwide network of food banks providing struggling families with healthy foods.
  • No Kid Hungry: Helps to close the food need gap given that the average monthly SNAP benefit is only $1.46 per meal.
  • Operation Warm: Provides new winter coats to children of families in need.
  • United Nations Children Fund: 90% of every dollar spent goes directly to help children around the world by providing food, clean water, and healthcare, including vaccines.

Trina Smith: “Social Justice & Compassion ”

In this world we current live in:

  • There are “cultural wars” based on visions of morality and often tied into religion.
  • We deal with terrorism and often react with fear as a citizens of a country rather than global citizens.
  • Racism is still prevalent, people fear for their lives, and young men of color of being killed.
  • Racing to the top is more and being the “best” trumps mentoring and compassion for others.
  • Folks who identify as LGBTQ, and particularly trans, experience hate, bullying, and death.

And the list could go on.

Sometimes, it’s hard to be grateful when you see this. When you witness this. When people live through it. But on this day, that has admittedly has its own “colonizing” history, I will be thankful.

I am thankful for:

  • People who take a stand for social justice.
  • For those willing to engage in civic dialogue about the issues.
  • To those are willing to talk to and teach their children, our next generation, about what the hate, violence, misunderstandings mean, including deadly consequences.
  • My students who persevere though hard times.
  • For the idea of compassion.

We all do not have believe the same thing to love or have compassion.

I hope we can continue to have civil dialogues, call attention the matters, and care for humanity based on compassion and not fear and hate.

Tristan Bridges: “Teaching values about sharing through warthogs…”

In our house, we read a short children’s book to my children by David Ezra Stein entitled The Nice Book. It’s a short rhyming book that teaches children about rhymes, and the basics of what it means to be kind and to interact with others in ways you’d like to be interacted with. So, there are lessons about recognizing your own limits, not hitting, talking through our feelings, not staring at others, taking care of those in need, and the like. And each page is accompanied by a cute painting of a pair of animals acting out the kind behavior. On one page is a warthog with a huge ice cream sundae. On the next page the warthog is sharing the sundae with a mouse. It’s accompanied by the text, “If you have more than you need, SHARE.” It’s a basic lesson. And it’s one we expect our children to learn at an early age. Both of mine are still struggling with this particular lesson. And if I’m being honest, it’s one I’m still working on, too. But, like most of the lessons in The Nice Book, they’re not just for kids—these are ideals toward which we can all work harder to achieve. Happy Thanksgiving!

While male managers must survive in a politicized environment, one that can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, it is harder for  women because of the added gender dynamics embedded in the…culture. Women must deal with narrow parameters for what is considered acceptable behavior. They must contradict the stereotypes their male colleagues have about women, but avoid being considered too macho. They must be decisive, but not pushy; ambitious, but not expect equal treatment in terms of pay or rate of promotion. They must take initiative, but they must also follow other people’s advice.

This quote is taken from a book I wrote 20 years ago, in which I examined the workplace culture of a financial services company for the workers – women – who used its parental leave policy. (Men only took vacation time when their babies arrived.) I spent a year observing workplace dynamics with a gender and occupational status lens. And I learned that being a woman on the top was not easy.

I think about this study as I observe Hillary Clinton navigate the precarious waters of power politics. As I review what I wrote a couple of decades ago, it’s clear that while it may be easier now for women to rise to executive positions, it’s no picnic trying to get there, or for that matter, trying to stay there.

For women in politics, getting to, and being on, the top is fraught with personal and professional land-mines. Former Google executive, Cheryl Sandberg, advises women to be more assertive in the workplace and demand equal treatment, while Ann-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation, pushes for work and family policies that create a more even playing field. I tend to think that both approaches are relevant and true, and either alone is insufficient. Despite the unfriendly climate for women who seek and occupy high political office, there are a number of prominent women who have traversed this terrain.

While some would argue that women are more likely to promote policies that bring about peace, or work-family balance, or gender equity, this is not inevitable. Women are operating within the broader system, and their power is not necessarily equated with progressive social and economic policies, much less the promotion of gender equity. That said, there are women political leaders who are making real change. It’s fascinating to see how these women – and others who are less progressive – have historically risen and currently rise to the top.

Increase of executive women leaders globally

One can rattle off a list of noted women leaders over the decades, from the first female Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and the former Prime Minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher, to more contemporary women leaders, like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, or Brazilian President, Dilma Vana Rousseff. Or one of my favorites (more later!), former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Concurrent to this rise of women executive leaders, there have also been a record number of women voted onto national parliaments worldwide.

Up until a couple decades ago, women were entering the high echelons of political power at a very slow pace. But in the 1990s, 26 women became executive leaders, and 29 more women entered the ranks by 2009. Between the 1980s and 1990s, the number of new female leaders nearly quadrupled, and this trend continued through the 2000s. According to political scientist Farida Jalalzi, 71 women from 52 countries became national leaders between 1960-2009. While the greatest number of women in positions of executive leadership come from Europe, overall, they represent five world regions, including Asia, African, Europe, Latin America and Oceania. Hillary has a number of sisters who have done it for themselves.

I can imagine that Hillary has a bevy of advisors telling her how to navigate the treacherously gendered waters of power, telling her what she should wear; how she should balance a direct style with her desire to be approachable and likable; how she should argue and debate without being considered arrogant; or even how to use humor to deflect criticism. Just thinking about all of these considerations is exhausting!

Gendered landscape for women in the political process

Who are the women politicians who Hillary should be looking to for inspiration? How did they rise? What are the issues they are passionate about? What are their contradictions? How do they survive?

In her writing about the gendered landscape of women in the political process, political scientist, Farida Jalalzai, reports that the increased numbers of women in top political leadership positions has “sparked widespread discussion of the role of sex and gender in political life…For some, the rise of several prominent female leaders reflects the important gains that women have made in the political sphere”. But she warns that “the experiences and portrayals of female politicians, as well as the continued under-representation of women in politics more generally, draw attention to the many ways in which access to political office is still very much stratified by gender”.

Characteristics of global women leaders

Jalalzai offers some important insights regarding which women rise to executive power and in what contexts. Interestingly, women tend to become national leaders in countries where women’s education and economic status lags far behind that of men. Think, Indira Gandhi of India or President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. Women leaders in those countries are usually highly educated, and have far more privilege then most women in their countries. Gandhi was mostly taught at home by tutors when she was young, undoubtedly to ensure that she had access to quality education, and later studied political science, history and economics at Oxford university.

Sirleaf didn’t complete college in her homeland, but came to the US to do her BA degree, and then studied economics and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she received a Masters of Public Administration. In a 2011 speech she made at Harvard’s commencement, she thanked the university for the many professors and the “compliments you paid when my papers and interventions were top rate, and for the patience you showed when I struggled with quantitative analysis”. She also noted that the “self-confidence, sometimes called arrogance, that comes from being a Harvard graduate can also lead one down a dangerous path”, as she describes the consequences of questioning her government’s failure to address long-standing inequalities, in a speech at her high school alma mater.

This forced me into exile and a staff position at the World Bank. Other similar events would follow in a life of in and out of country, in and out of jail, in and out of professional service. There were times when I thought death was near, and times when the burden of standing tall by one’s conviction seemed only to result in failure. But through it all, my experience sends a strong message that failure is just as important as success.

Later, Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along with two other women activists, in recognition “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

A number of high level political women were part of political family dynasties – like Indira Gandhi, who rose through the ranks when her father was Prime Minister, or Isabella Peron who became Prime Minister of Argentina following her husband’s death. Jalalzai also found that women were more likely to serve in parliamentary systems and as Prime Ministers, where they are selected by their own party, rather than as presidents, who come to power through popular vote. Moreover, she argues that there is a gendered nature to this role, as Prime Ministers tend to share power with cabinet and party members so they exhibit more so-called “feminine” qualities like negotiation and collaboration.

So what about Hillary?
Like many international women politicians, Hillary was introduced to the public through her status as wife to the President. Traditionally, the wife status is “lesser than”, but there has certainly been precedence for wives emerging as political leaders. Hillary is highly educated – undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and Law degree from Yale – and while she was being groomed to rise politically during her husband’s tenure as President, she was given the opportunity to demonstrate her strong leadership abilities, notably her efforts to reach consensus on health care policy in the US, an unwieldy job that was destined to fail, given the disparate forces involved.

Hillary was dealt a huge setback when her husband got caught having sex with an intern and then lied about it. All eyes were on her, as she – and her husband and all of their political consultants – had to figure out the smartest way to help her survive unscathed, walking a fine line of avoiding being perceived as a “scorned” woman, while personally maintaining self-respect, as an independent woman who was disconnected from her husband’s bad behavior. Ultimately, Hillary was able to establish herself as a professional, separate from this crisis that could have marred their family’s prospects for political engagement. And perhaps by some, she was viewed as grounded and able to tolerate adversity, and ultimately proved herself as a capable Senator and Secretary of State.

Many progressives are critical of Hillary’s moderate economic policies and links to big money, at the same time, feeling outraged at the sexism and ageism she endures. In a recent campaign speech, she retorted,

Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States!

Which women leaders around the world should Hillary look to for inspiration?

Which political leaders’ playlist can Hillary learn from?

Let’s start with former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who lambasted her opposition leader, Tony Abbott, in her now-infamous and highly watchable “Misogyny Speech”, in which she says, “I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not!” When Abbott claimed he was offended by a colleague’s discovered sexist texts, Gillard doesn’t buy it, saying:

Let’s go through the Opposition Leader’s repulsive double standards, repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism. We are now supposed to take seriously that the Leader of the Opposition is offended by Mr Slipper’s text messages, when this is the Leader of the Opposition who has said…and I quote, in a discussion about women being under-represented in institutions of power in Australia, the interviewer was a man called Stavros. The Leader of the Opposition says “If it’s true, Stavros, that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?

Or perhaps Hillary could learn a few things from Dilma Vana Rousseff, current President of Brazil, who – like Margaret Thatcher – has been dubbed “the Iron Lady” because of her apparent “brusque manner and short temper”, a title that doesn’t seem to faze her. She grew up in an upper-middle class home, joined the left-wing movement against Brazil’s military dictatorship which had seized power in 1964, and was imprisoned for three years during which she was subject to torture, and refused to break. She was called “the high priestess of subversion” during her trial. From 2005-2010, she was Chief of Staff to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. And then she was elected President in 2011. While Rousseff is progressive around some economic issues, she is also a leader in a religious country. She herself is pro-life, supporting abortion only in certain circumstances (e.g., health of mother, cases of rape), but even then was criticized by the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups. Rouseff is also opposed to gay marriage, even though she supports same sex civil unions. Nothing is simple.

I return to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia since 2006 and the first elected head-of-state in Africa. Her collaboration with Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist who led a women’s peace movement, helped bring an end to Liberia’s civil war, which enabled a free election in 2005 that resulted in Sirleaf’s winning the Presidency. Gbowee was one of the activists who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Sirleaf, who understood the importance of being aligned with a social movement that reflected her values and promoted peace. Sirleaf has said she promotes women’s involvement in politics because she says women “have a story to tell” and their participation can promote more peaceful policies, economic empowerment, and provide young girls with role models and aspirations.

And finally, if Hillary is looking for a real ally, she should look no further than Tarja Kaarina Halonen, former trade unionist turned lawyer and two-term President of Finland (2000-2012). A human rights activist and avid supporter of LGBT rights with an 88% approval rating throughout her tenure, Halonen is currently an active member of the UN’s Council of Women World Leaders. Were Hillary ever to become President, this international “network of current and former women prime ministers and presidents” is a place she could possibly call home. The Council was founded in 1996 by Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, President of Iceland (1980-1996) and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected president; Mary Robinson, President of Ireland (1990-1997) and Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders. It aims to “support(s) women’s full participation and representation in the political process at the highest levels, and future women leaders”.  Commenting on the status of women globally, Liswood said, “There is no such thing as a glass ceiling for women. It’s just a thick layer of men”.

Some may argue that women rule differently from men. But we have learned from history that all political leaders operate within the social and political context of which they are a part. Politics is a gendered space, and women leaders walk a narrow line. The wisest of political leaders look for allies who build the base and fight for change from the outside in, as well as the inside out.

Who are the other global women political leaders you admire?

Swan Study image I sit opposite Lila [1], the 25-year-old research assistant, in a small room at a satellite office of Mass General Hospital. She is warm and professional, and we have already discovered that she went to college at the same university where I went to graduate school. She took classes with some of my favorite professors, and we may have been in the same room at one point, when I came back to give a talk on campus. This is a nice ice-breaker. But now, in this room, Lila is in the driver’s seat. She has just finished asking me a load of questions about my health, lifestyle, and social networks. I will be there a total of four hours by the time I complete the entire process, which includes a bone density scan and a few other tests they’ve added this year.

In 1996, right after I completed my Ph.D. in Sociology, I was randomly selected as one of 3,302 women from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds to participate in this mid-life women’s health study called SWAN – or Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation. The study is following women as we transition through menopause, to better understand the physical, biological, psychological and social changes we experience during this period. SWAN aims to help scientists, health care providers and women “learn how mid-life experiences affect health and quality of life during aging”. [2]

SWAN participants or “subjects” were all between 42 and 52 years old “at baseline” – that, is, when the study began – and we represent seven cities around the country, including my own city of Boston.

When I got the call inviting me to join the SWAN study, I had just completed a lengthy project that involved a lot of interviewing. I welcomed the opportunity to answer someone else’s questions! It also felt great to be a part of important research that had the prospects of influencing medical science. But when I said “yes” to participating in SWAN nearly 20 years ago, I could not have predicted that I would be interviewed by at least 10 or more 20-something research assistants, most of them en route to medical school following this “real-life” experience.

Last year, there was a funding hiatus for the study. I was having a tough year myself and barely noticed that I hadn’t gotten my annual call to set up an appointment. Then a month ago, a letter arrived. SWAN was back in biz, and I’d be getting a call soon! I was thrilled that the study was re-funded in this era of budget cuts for basic science and social science research. I was also feeling grateful that my health was back on track. It struck me that SWAN gave me a regular opportunity to reflect on my life’s circumstances, and to think about how I’m handling growing older, even if it’s only because of a series of questions read to me by a young research assistant whom I’ve just met.

Lila was trained to draw blood, and as she jabs me with the needle, I think, wow, she’s pretty good. We continue to chat, as she measures my waist and hips, clocks how fast I can walk down the narrow hallway, and how long I can balance in a variety of different positions. I’m feeling pretty cocky, until we get to the cognitive test, which they instituted about four years ago. Even though I think my memory is pretty good, being quizzed by a millennial is unnerving. I tell Lila that this test makes me anxious, and she says “yeah, everyone hates it”. That’s only somewhat reassuring, but I appreciate her attempt to normalize my response. Once it’s over – after I spat back a series of numbers and letters in order, and re-told a story about three children in a burning house being saved by a brave fire fighter – I tell myself, “good enough”. That was something my father used to say in moments of stress.

The SWAN Study has taken care to ensure that we are a diverse sample of participants.

In Boston, researchers over-sampled African-American women, meaning that the study has intentionally included a larger percentage of African-Americans than are represented in the general population. Other cities have ensured that the sample includes large numbers of Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanic women. This oversampling strategy allows researchers to investigate the influence of race and ethnicity on health outcomes of women as we age.

SWAN-affiliated researchers, Drs. Robin Green and Nanette Santoro, found that most symptoms of menopausal women varied by ethnicity. They write,

“Vasomotor symptoms were more prevalent in African-American and Hispanic women and were also more common in women with greater BMI, challenging the widely held belief that obesity is protective against vasomotor symptoms”.

They also found that vaginal dryness was present in 30-40 percent of SWAN participants at baseline, and was most prevalent in Hispanic women. But even among Hispanic women, “symptoms varied by country of origin”. The researchers conclude that “acculturation appears to play a complex role in menopausal symptomatology” and that “ethnicity should be taken into account when interpreting menopausal symptom presentation in women”.

By including an ethnically diverse sample, the SWAN Study is able to compare the experiences of women from varied backgrounds, which has pointed to important differences that should be of great benefit to health care practitioners. Moreover, SWAN researchers provide participants with information about our health, and flag issues we should explore further. For example, I discovered that I had high cholesterol, something that runs in my family. I’m now being monitored by a specialist, who asked me to take a very lose dose of a Statin. And overall, I’m more conscientious about my diet. The upshot is that my cholesterol levels are under control.

Gathering the SWANS…

In the past couple of decades, the SWAN team held a number of gatherings to bring Boston SWAN “subjects” together. It’s awesome to be in a room with hundreds of women with one thing in common: we are mid-life women who have gone through menopause! What fun to talk about all the crap we are experiencing without feeling judged or worrying that we might be boring someone.

The first gathering I attended offered workshops where “experts” could answer our questions about sleep (like hot flashes keeping us awake) or provide us with alternatives to Hormone Replacement Therapy. One year, SWAN researchers organized an event that featured the brilliant and outspoken Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General who was a lightning rod for speaking her mind, in support of legalizing marijuana, the distribution of contraceptives in schools, and even suggesting that masturbation might be a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity. Sitting in a diverse crowd of mid-life women and cheering for Elders, whom I have admired for years, was positively thrilling.

Lila tells me a little about this year’s gathering, which I unfortunately missed. I learn that one of the Boston-based Principal Investigators, Dr. Joel Finkelstein, is a serious art aficionado and at the last SWAN Study gathering, he showed a series of paintings by an older woman. His message was that we can continue to grow and be creative as we age. When the interview is complete, Lila hands me my gift. In past years, it has been a cup or a small tote bag, marked with the graceful SWAN logo. But this year, it’s a small box, the top graced with a floral design from this artist.

Gift from SWAN StudyIn the abstract of his 2014 application to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Finkelstein concluded by saying, “SWAN will fill important gaps in understanding the impact of the menopausal transition and mid-life aging on women’s health and functioning in the postmenopausal years. Accordingly, it will provide useful information to guide clinical decisions in mid-life and beyond in women who have diverse life experiences and socioeconomic and racial/ethnic characteristics”.

I’m grateful to be a part of this longitudinal study, to know that the aggregate data being collected reflects a diverse population of women, and that we are collectively contributing to scientific knowledge that can improve the lives of women as we age.

Finally, here’s a great clip from Menopause, the Musical!, just for fun

[1] Fictitious name

[2] The SWAN Study is co-sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

We’ve all had them, and maybe some of us are them! (No, not us!) As a sociologist who has spent many years studying workplaces, I am indebted to a number of bad bosses. Although some of them made my life miserable, they inspired me to understand why. So in the spirit of acknowledgment, I must first say thank you to the boss who told me I was destroying my life by leaving the job to pursue another direction. (Destroying whose life?) And thank you, too, to the psychotic boss who knew that I supported a particular political cause, and out of nowhere screamed at me, “Don’t ever let me see you on television with a sign in your hands supporting that Communist (crap).” Whoa! It hadn’t occurred to me, but now that you mention it…And thank you to the newly appointed manager who, in her first month on the job, falsely accused me of serious financial improprieties. (One month, and many sleepless nights later, I was vindicated.)

Given these experiences, it has been therapeutic to study the American workplace and to dissect some of the problems that contribute to “bad-bossism”. Despite having been “stung” by a few bad bosses, I still believe that people – including some bosses – are basically good!
So what is it that leads some people in management positions to “behave badly?” Well for a start, the workplace is a microcosm of our larger culture and society. Societal problems that exist outside the office are likely to surface within it as well, playing out via power dynamics between and among employees, based on their occupational status, their gender, and their racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Political economist and philosopher, Karl Marx, laid the groundwork for understanding the intrinsic tension between labor and management (or, as he would say, capital), in which a capitalist system favors profit over people. In this system, he argued, management would necessarily exploit workers with long hours and poor working conditions, in order to get more productivity out of workers, which in turn would maximize profit. With the advent of laws that limit working hours in manufacturing settings, and the regulation of working conditions, Marx’s critique and analysis continues to provide a useful framework, even though it’s probably more relevant to manufacturing work in Third World countries, where many multinational corporations have moved their operations in search of cheaper labor.

In the U.S., our current economy has increasingly shifted to knowledge-based work and services, and the lines that are drawn between workers and managers are often painted as more subtle. Nonetheless, stratification of the labor force ripples through multiple levels of professional and managerial workers. How do these dynamics affect the contemporary workplace?

Studies suggest that a number of factors shaping workplace environments contribute to the “bad boss” phenomenon:

1. Male model of the ideal worker
In this model, the “normal” trajectory of the worker is based on a “male model” of the ideal worker, a person who can work throughout his (her?) career in a continuous and uninterrupted manner, taking no time for non-work (e.g., personal, family) activities. Sociologist Erin Kelly, et al calls it a “masculinist work culture”, commenting,

“Working long hours is a sign that employees are readily available and eager to meet others’ needs; it further reinforces the ideal worker as someone – most often a man – who does not have, or does not attend to, other pressing commitments outside of work.”

With this model, work comes first. When managers perceive that’s not the case for one or more employees, it’s viewed as an affront to the company, a deviation from employee loyalty. Managers who “buy into” a “masculinist work culture” are likely to be critical of workers who challenge this norm. In a study I conducted on parental leave policy in a large financial services company, the norm was so powerful that men chose not to use the company’s generous parental leave policy, and women who used the policy took very short leaves, even though legally, all employees were entitled to longer leaves.

2. Structural issues that create a culture of competition
in our current American workplace, where the bottom line rules, there are economic pressures to produce. In line with the prevailing capitalist ethic, a culture of competition is viewed by many managers as necessary to foster productivity, with long hours as the norm. In order to sustain productivity, managers feel pressure from above to push employees to produce more, even when they realize that it’s not humanly possible. In a number of the workplace studies I’ve conducted, I’ve learned that being in a middle managerial position is often isolating. This makes these managers depressed and grumpy. Most have little support to figure out a better way, and they realize quickly that too much empathy for their “subordinates” takes too much time. Ergo, they may “act badly.”

3. Poor economic times makes managers even more grumpy
In our crisis economy, the financial pressure is even more intense, and some managers may exhibit more controlling behavior towards their employees. Managers are being more closely monitored on financial performance, and they may be even less likely to take the time to attend to employees’ feelings or needs under these conditions.4. “Deal with it; I did!”
Some managers worked hard to get where they are, and along the way, they experienced a lot of pain themselves. When they get to the top (or close to it), some pass on what is familiar. While many of the managers I’ve interviewed worked very hard to respond to the needs of those under their supervision, some were less than understanding.5. Lack of management training
Some managers who are good workers are rewarded by being moved up to management positions. While some organizations prepare their workers for this type of promotion, others fail to prepare them for the pressures they encounter once they are in charge. Without adequate management training, some bosses make mistakes, even lots of mistakes. Sometimes they find themselves in positions of power and it feels uncomfortable. They’re being asked to do things with and to workers that they wouldn’t have liked themselves. They know that. But they don’t know how to challenge or work with the system without jeopardizing their reputation or losing their jobs. This can make for frustration and grumpiness.

6. Personality problems
Some managers just shouldn’t be managing people. Their “management style” may look good to upper-level managers because it fits in with a culture of competition and drive. But they may be making the people who work for them miserable. Because of an “us” and “them” dichotomy, other managers may even side with them.

Perhaps we all have a story about the crazy or mean or incompetent boss. Are all managers bad bosses? No, of course not. But the problem is clearly pervasive: Google “bad boss” and you’ll find over 7 million citations, with countless workers publicly venting about their negative experiences, and experts offering advice on how to deal with that mean and disrespectful supervisor.

What is a good boss? There’s plenty written about good bosses as well. Google “good boss” and you’ll find over 14 million citations! Hopefully we’ve also had them (and maybe even are them!).

Here’s an excerpt (slightly tweaked) from a 10/10/10 article in the Chicago Tribute by Mary Schmich about what makes a “good boss.”
* A good boss understands that all power is fleeting and borrowed, and doesn’t take advantage of this moment.
* A good boss realizes that her/his real power comes not from those above him, but from the rank-and-file.
* A good boss listens, and can see a problem before it turns into a crisis. If it does turn into a crisis, the good boss works with an employee to resolve the situation.
* A good boss understands that your time is important too.
* A good boss is a good communicator, responding to your concerns and questions in person and via electronic communications.
* A good boss treats employees with respect. S/he does not treat people differently based on their occupational status, gender, race or sexual orientation.
* A good boss tries to make everyone feel special and included.
* A good boss is self-aware and tries to understand how his/her behavior affects others.
* A good boss has the courage to deal with problem employees, and does it professionally.
* A good boss tells you when you screwed up and forgives you.
* A good boss does not take credit for your ideas, nor does s/he demand credit when s/he gives you an idea.
* A good boss is not afraid of people as smart as s/he is.
* A good boss sees what you do best, matches your job to your talents, and gives you room to bloom.
* A good boss remembers how s/he felt about bosses before s/he was one.
* A good boss reveals just enough about her/his personal life to remind you that bosses are people too.
* A good boss doesn’t take bonuses when the workers can’t get a raise.
* A good boss knows how to apologize and how to laugh, sometimes at him/herself.
* And a good boss understands how much we all yearn for a good boss.