Before I moved to Los Angeles a little over a year ago, I had never heard people speak with complete lack of irony about their television-watching habits, certainly never academics.  Among the revelations I’ve experienced since moving one of the biggest has been realizing how serious so many people are about what’s on the tube. In La-La Land, of course, because so many work within this industry.

What a pleasure to then discover Merri Lisa Johnson’s book Third Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts It in A Box with its feminist counter to what’s seen on the screen (see below).  The subtitle riffs off of one of Johnson’s previous books Jane Sexes It Up. This anthology covers many of the cable favorites from the past decade: The Sopranos, The L Word, Six Feet Under, and Queer as Folk, among others, and a show that has spawned its own subgenre of academic inquiry: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In her intro “Ladies Love Your Box: The Rhetoric of Pleasure and Danger in Feminist Television Studies,” Johnson harkens back to the now classic essay “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey and the complicated, gendered relationships long explored between pleasure and spectatorship.  Johnson compellingly outlines her own position in both settling on the couch for a night of cable and wrestling with the theoretical assumptions this act also contains, particularly as a third-wave feminist.  She considers how television is now embracing characters who can be identified along a range of sexual positions and feminist roles and the complicated relationship the viewer enters into by watching.  The book’s contributors explore how plotlines, characters, and thematic twists can be considered progressive as they look through the lens of feminist and queer theory and the scope of cultural studies.

In “Primetime Harem Fantasites: Marriage, Monogamy, and A Bit of Feminist Fanfiction on ABC’s The Bachelor” Katherine Frank offers analysis of the show and its popularity with the imagined alternative ending of a non-monogamous choice or critique of the strictures of heterosexual monogamy that celebrates the finding of “the One.”  Laura Stemple’s essay on “HBO’s OZ and the Fight Against Prisoner Rape: Chronicles from the Front Line” opens with a narrative about her work as former executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, “a national human rights organization working to end the sexual abuse of men, women, and youth behind bars.”  As the show OZ aired, Stemple finds herself stunned by the “gloves-off nature of OZ” with realistic depictions of the effects of prisoner rape, and the psychological dimension of abuse prisoners experience and how this brought victims forward to her center.  She notes that OZ‘s sixth and final season “ran in 2003, the same year in which the first federal legislation to address prisoner rape, The Prison Rape Elimination Act” was signed into law.

On a different note, in Candace Moore’s “Getting Wet: The Heteroflexibility of Showtime’s The L Word” she writes how the show accesses a range of methods to make “straight tourists into queer-friendly travelers” incorporating what she calls “the tourist gaze” sometimes by craftily using “immersion and distance” through camera work and the show’s visual rhetoric.   Cultivating “the tourist gaze,” Moore says, “in politically positive ways” the show moves along an axis between queer and straight viewers allowing for access of “multiple desires and sensibilities.”

On the cusp of big-movie release season, nevermind the plethora of holiday “specials,” Johnson’s book offers welcome relief as its astute critics offer analysis and provocative perspectives on television’s influences. On this holiday weekend, good feminist, media watching to all.

It feels rare these days that I see anything on TV that makes me laugh, but I found myself struck by both the hilarity of this SNL segment as well as by the unexpected parable of thwarted, gendered communication it offers. Catapulting me back to the linguistics class I once audited in college, the skit relies on what seem like arch-stereotypes of male and female behavior: the boorish male producer who literally runs the show (filling in for the sensitive female talk show host) but who also literally can’t hear the words of the nervous, self-effacing audience members’ questions. Then, when the effeminate pony-tailed male production assistant, (encouraging the women with an understanding look and supportive pat on the back), “translates” man-to-man for the producer he can comprehend their words – only to offer a one-note prescriptive answer that serves his perspective (to flatly apologize with no notion why he offends), revealing that he lacks any ability to truly listen. When the women express puzzlement or refuse his inappropriate advice, he immediately resorts to defensiveness. He exhorts the women to speak up only to completely miss (and dismiss) their intent and then blame them for not taking his advice. He’s “tried” to help and it’s their fault if they don’t agree with him.

Interestingly, when the assistant steps in to channel the voice of the sensitive host, Dr. Danilla, spouting her affirmations about empowering women, it’s as if he “gender-passes” into a female role and then suddenly can’t be heard by the producer either, who returns to his state of selective deafness. As her proxy, his impassioned plea for women’s empowerment results in the same editing out that the producer gives the female audience members.

This skit had me laughing and cringing at the same time. The blustery, self-important producer who both realistically and metaphorically just can’t hear women’s voices seems an all-too-familiar stereotype, alongside the hand-wringing and apologetic linguistic patterns of the women who are trying, bravely, to improve their lives. When faced with the brick wall of the producer’s dismissal, the second woman’s impulse is to retract her question, retreat, and say she’ll deal with the issue herself, and the third, realizing what a fight is ahead, decides it’s not worth it. Somehow, this struck me as both a hilarious and a sobering parable of entrenched patriarchal patterns embedded within styles of communication. I’m curious what others think – is this over-reading a simple skit? Is this the product of an astute SNL writer jabbing at a producer’s power to silence? Where, exactly, does the joke lie?

Not far into Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein’s book, Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, the word drive takes on new definition. Friends since they were 11, the duo spent summers together at Camp Kinderland, (where they return to teach a gender awareness workshop at their journey’s end). Aronowitz describes their mutual upbringing as one in which they incubated within the same “bubble: the liberal Jewish one that inhabits New York’s Upper West Side and Greenwich Village.” Post-college, over Bloody Marys and brunch, they hatch a plan to drive across America to try to understand what feminism means to twentysomethings outside this shell. After planning and saving, they set off for an odyssey of exploration, crashing on couches, interviewing in living rooms as well as in bars, doing their best to catch the flavor of whatever city they’re in and to measure how the word “feminist” translates.

Through series of snapshots – both visual and written – they tease out from their interviewees whether or not they comfortably embrace the word “feminist” as part of their self-definition. The book feels like a gloss – in the best sense – Bernstein’s photos are vivid and edgy as is each page’s sleek design. Aronowitz is responsible for the bulk of the writing and through her capsule write-ups she imbues mutable definitions into the word “feminist.”

The two discover a “badass feminist posse in Baton Rouge,” are so taken with the “fascinating women in Nashville,” they say on an extra day, dress up as frumpy second-wavers for some Halloween partying on the Las Vegas strip. They interview members of Big Star Burlesque, a plus-size dance troupe in Austin, chat with graduate students in San Diego and parse the contributions and detriments of “academic feminism,” learn from a young single mother on welfare tending bar in Sioux Falls, and bring some of their “guy friends” directly into the discussion in Kansas City. They drop acid in Abiquiu, follow a text to an afterhours “noise show” in Portland, feel surprised by Seattle’s “crunchy clean,” spend much of their holidays in New York City zigzagging across the boroughs to capture the rich communities of writers, artists, and activists they find.

The effect is one of pastiche, weaving, or braiding, all good second-wave tropes, but with the conversation focused on third-wave concerns. Aronowitz and Bernstein are transparent about their process throughout – and frank about what surprised them. Working out and through the interconnective fibers that bind generations of women is their work. They encounter women who mightily resist the word “feminist” due to generational preconceptions, but still desperately want gender injustice to end. Some embrace the word “humanist” or just want to be called an activist, minus any labels. When some women were confused by what the word “feminist” even meant, the two asked, “What pisses you off about being a woman?” or “What keeps you up nights?” often to a flood of response. The collective narrative picks up friction when Aronowitz and Bernstein openly grapple with women who say they plan to have a “traditional” marriage or eschew premarital sex or are ardently anti-choice. These moments are compelling as Aronowitz and Bernstein gamely push up against these comments, and fairly include them.

Interviews with second wave feminists leaven the book as the two ask what legacy has been handed down, and what these women hope for their generation. The two sit down with Erica Jong, Katha Pollitt (and her daughter), Michele Wallace, poets Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Anne Waldman, Starhawk, (among others), pay homage to Kathleen Hanna, and close the book with an interview with feminist artist Susan Bee Bernstein, Emma’s mother.

If I could wish for one change, it would be less breadth. Surveying with a wide lens is the point of their project – to collage viewpoints and show the multiplicity of meanings that inhabit the word “feminist.” Yet at times the interviewees’ comments are so brief they don’t allow meaning to accrete. The richest part of the book is its sheer panoply of voices and images, but more interstitial reflection would help frame the montage.

It is impossible to not commend the two for the ambitious scope of this project, to admire their commitment, and the sense of passion present in their quest. Sadly, it’s also impossible to not think about the losses that accompany the book – especially the resonating silence that surrounds losing the voice of a young feminist from the collective conversation. But the echo left is one of fervid dialogue – richly diverse – engaged in trying to create what changes lie ahead. If I could think of a topic that travels around the conversations of most women I know, the choice to have a child, and when, often lives pretty near the top of the list.  Following it comes a litany of concerns: how to juggle career, partnerhood, personal and professional ambitions, and more.  Elizabeth Gregory, Director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Houston, as well as Full Professor of English, tackles the topic of timing in Ready: Why Women are Embracing the New Later Motherhood with results that bring relief — both in the sense that there is good news to uncover amid all the swirling anxiety, and relief as the strong, clear reasons why many women choose to delay motherhood stand out against a grey fog of cultural pressure that warns against it.

Over two and a half years, Gregory interviews 113 women of diverse backgrounds (gay and straight as well as single and coupled) and focuses on the choices of women who become first-time mothers at age 35 or older.  Recognizing that “later” motherhood is nothing new, Gregory articulates how the difference is that women are now choosing to have first children, rather than last, at what is labeled “advanced maternal age.”  The choices that spur this change swim the  currents of women’s lives: the advent of birth control, and correspondingly, advances with fertility treatment; access to education and the desire for a career; refusal to marry just to gain a spouse, with instead the desire to wait for a peer relationship; commitment to financial security that eschews dependence on a partner.  The best news is how often the women interviewed express deep contentment with their paths.

Gregory’s statistics are compelling: “One of every 12 babies born to first-time mothers in 2006 was born to a woman 35 or older. In 1970, the figure was one in 100.”  Her research reflects the financial as well as emotional rewards of this choice.  She points out that “among full-time workers between 40 and 45 with professional degrees, those who had their first child at 25 made an average of $46,000, while those who waited until 35 made $79,000. A woman’s average long-term salary increases by 3 percent for each year she delays children.” Her exploration of the politics surrounding labor (during birth and other maternal work) and childcare issues continues on her blog “Domestic Product” and in several thought pieces available online.

Ready rounds a spectrum of reasons why women choose to delay, with many citing better emotional preparedness at later ages, as well as not wanting to rush new relationships, or women’s own enjoyment of their 20s and 30s, alongside the desire to be more financially powerful and advanced in their careers, hence better able to leverage work/family balance.  Women who come later to motherhood are more likely to have higher levels of education, more stable partnerships, and be in “peer marriages,” with active partners who commit equally to childcare. Most cheering is the overall positive sense of choice.

Gregory does not deny statistics around declining fertility for older, aspiring first-time moms, but takes issue with the cultural narratives that pronounce definitive limits that may not hold true for every body. Commenting that the advent of tabloid profiles of older stars having babies at advanced ages, combined with medical warnings to women not to delay childbearing, have created a confusing scenario where “people seem to think simultaneously that nobody can get pregnant after 35 and that everybody can,” Gregory brings back mention of the “punishment narrative” Sylvia Hewlett raises in Creating a Life, which “linked high-achieving women with infertility and warned younger women not to trade their hopes of family for lonely success.”

Similarly, we now have the expectation of an “emergency mood” offered on many fertility clinics’ websites — alongside promotion of their services meant to lure patients in with anticipation of failure.  Gregory is clear about how fertility may wax and wane off the standardized charts but her scrutiny of the cultural scripts around waiting, combined with who and what ideals are served by telling women not to wait, is revealing.  She comments how the “tangled dynamics of the current fertility scene jumble together parents’ desire for a child and the doctors’ and the pharmaceutical companies’ joint motives — both to assist potential parents and to make a profit” while still being frank about the issues women may face.  Her study includes women well above 40 who become first-time mothers, some through donor eggs, some through adoption, and some naturally, also noting that some lament that their age delimits having more than one child.

Neither directly advocating later motherhood, or not, Gregory reveals how “ready” holds a variety of nuances, but reversing the cultural chime of anxiety and panic about postponing childbearing to show instead that women who come to motherhood later in their lives report high levels of satisfaction, contentment, overall strong work/family balance and often genuine joy with their choices is a welcome shift.

Somewhere within my past year’s reading the book Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age by Kathleen Sweeney came into my orbit.  It seemed ideal as I traced the history of girls onscreen, on television, and within other forms of media.  Yet I wish I could give Sweeney’s book a more enthusiastic thumbs up.  Listed as a “media artist and writer” Sweeney has taught at various colleges and been active in media training programs for girls.  Her book began as a “curatorial project of films and videos by teenage girls entitled ‘Reel Girls/Real Girls'” which premiered in San Francisco.

Sweeney casts a wide net and she ranges from exploration of the Riot Grrrl movement to a chapter called “Mean Girls in Ophelia Land” which tracks the rise and fall of the “mean girl” movement within popular writing as well as on screen.  She correctly identifies that for the most part the Teenage Girl, (as she capitalizes it) was a “passive helping noun linked to Daddies, Brothers, and Boyfriends,” until certain cultural zeitgeists began to shift. As cultural interest in girls gathered momentum, the growth of what Sweeney names a Girl Icon has grown.  Sweeney is right on point when she chases this emergence through the past almost 20 years.

The book moves at a fast clip – her quick categorizations of Neo-Lolitas, Career Girls, Geek Girls, Cyber Chicks, as well as Supernatural Girls, Amazons, and Brainiacs, among other labels, often struck me as too glib.  Her most intriguing point is what now defines an Icon in contemporary culture, as well as her reinsciption of the term into the word “Eye-con.”  Sweeney calls an “Eye-con” an “image scam that must be navigated and brought to awareness by analyzing and naming its syntax,” not unlike a stereotype.  Eye-cons do their most damaging work, she says, when viewers are unconscious of their influence.  Within the pantheon of the “Eye-con” is the “Girl-con” she says, which are “Icons of girlhood which posit girls as inevitable Victims.”  Examples are “anorexic adolescent models selling a form of starvation beauty.” Media literacy demands that viewers name the Girl-con and then look beyond to alternative role models as Sweeney says she wants to consider Girl Power Icons for the new millennium against a “backdrop of current and retro Girl Iconography.”  Her writing about visual representation and even semiotics is at its strongest when she is doing this kind of analysis.

Yet, while impressive in scope, the book’s very breadth also serves as its limitation as depth is sacrificed for a sweeping survey of the cultural landscape. Sweeney’s enthusiasm for her subject is most strongly felt when she describes her first-hand work with girls.  Her final chapter “Girls Make Movies: Out of the Mirror and Through the Lens” was the most intriguing to me.  Sweeney’s passion as an activist comes out as she describes some of the current programs working with girls to advocate media literacy and develop their skills.  She mentions Reel Grrls in Seattle, Wash., and GirlsFilmSchool in Santa Fe, N.M., among others.  The book’s list of resources is also wonderfully thorough. I suspect undergraduate students would enjoy having this book assigned for its abundance of popular culture references, generous use of chapter subheads and discrete categorizations.

By contrast, another book I came across during my research was Mary Celeste Kearney’s Girls Make Media which became indispensible to me for both its range and its depth.  Kearney is an academic, now tenured at UT-Austin and the book’s research is admirable.  Neatly divided into three sections “Contexts,” “Sites,” and “Texts” Kearney also traces girls’ historical participation with media.  She delves into girls’ entry into the web, also the impact of the Riot Grrrls, zine culture as well as independent filmmaking.  Her focus on what happens when girls take over media production is what makes this book compelling.  At the same time, she contextualizes the institutionalized practices that have keep girls from participating fully.

Particularly exposing is the deeply entrenched sexism in the field of filmmaking (the idea that cameras are too heavy for female techs to lug and “peer networks” or “structures of acquaintanceship” that boys use covertly, but effectively, advance their ambitions and deny girls access).  Kearney’s cataloging is vast and its impact is felt as she reveals just how much girls who make media have to say.  She includes writing about the need for single-sex media education but steps beyond it to show what girls really do when they’re given access to media tools.  Their work often centers around exploration of identity and re-inscription of messages about gender roles that crack open a universe of deeply felt and powerfully smart dialogues about what most girls experience but hadn’t yet had a place to express.

Some of the titles Kearney includes tell a whole story: films such as Taizet Hernandez’s “Are You a Boy or a Girl?” which explores “real-life gender-bending of a young female” or Hernandez’s film “We Love Our Lesbian Daughters,” which explores coming out experiences and Kearney says offers “A rare glimpse into the lives of queer young Latinas” but focuses on sexual identity over ethnic identity.  She groups films about sexual abuse such as “Love Shouldn’t Hurt” by Tamara Garcia or “It’s Never OK” by Arielle Davis, and includes a cache of films about the ubiquitous doll such as in Lillian Ripley’s “What if Barbie Had a Voice?” Just a fraction of other titles include: “Looks Like a Girl” which “broadens young lesbian representations beyond white, Anglo culture,” and “Body Image” by Mieko Krell, meant to “raise awareness about girls’ different relations to and strategies for negotiating dominant beauty standards.”

When exploring girls’ zines Kearney includes telling excerpts as this one from “Bikini Kill: A Color and Activity Book” about why female youth should enact social change: “To discuss in both literal and artistic ways those issues that’re really important to girls: naming these issues, specifically, validates their importance and other girls’ interest in them; reminds girls that they aren’t alone.  To make fun of and thus disrupt the powers that be.”  Even a smattering of the zine titles reads like a found poem: The Bad Girl Club, Bi-Girl World, Lezzie Smut, The Adventures of Baby Dyke, Geek the Girl, Angry Young Woman, Pretty in Punk, Housewife Turned Assassin, Angst Girl, Pixxiebitch, Ladies Homewrecking Journal, From the Pen of a Liberated Woman. The book’s website is also a wonderful resource as the power of the girls’ voices can be felt shouting through the distance.

Hello again, Girl w/Pen readers! I’ve been in hibernation finishing up my book Girls’ Studies, which will be published by Seal Press this fall. It’s been a long, intense project, and I look forward to being in more regular rotation here.

It’s not exactly an uplifting way to come back to the blog, but since I’ve spent so much time thinking about girls, I’ve been particularly haunted by this story that I read in the LA Times this past Friday. An 8-year-old girl in Phoenix, Arizona was lured into an empty shed by four boys and brutally raped. Her screams prompted someone to call the police, and all the boys were caught, with the oldest, 14, charged as an adult. The other three (ages 9, 10, and 13) will be charged with sexual assault, with the 10 and 13-year-old additionally charged with kidnapping. Sadly, my research this past year has confirmed how common sexual assault for girls still is, and I wish her case seemed the exception.

What caused this report to turn into international news, however, is the girl’s father’s reaction: the decision to shun his daughter and tell authorities that she was no longer welcome home. According to the LA Times, “The father told the case worker and an officer in her presence that he didn’t want her back,” Phoenix Police Sgt. Andy Hill said. “He said, ‘Take her, I don’t want her.’ ” All five children are cited as being “refugees from the West African nation of Liberia,” and further commentary in the article links the father’s reaction to cultural rejection of a girl or woman who has been raped or dishonored. Tony Weedor, a Liberian refugee from Littleton, Colo., and co-founder of the CenterPoint International Foundation, (which helps Liberians resettle in the U.S.) is cited as saying, “It’s a shame-based culture, so the crime is not as important as protecting the family name and the name of the community.”

The story is heartbreaking not only for the ordeal this girl endured but her position as a victim now blamed. Her path to recovery, at the age of 8, seems long. The story caused me to recall Eve Ensler’s incredible work with rape survivers in the Congo and how often the women she interviewed expressed amazement that their plight was worthy of attention, their bodies and souls deserving of aid. Ensler has spoken out about how often rape is a military assault implemented through the bodies of women and the devastation of women who are then considered devalued within their society.

While not the same, the idea that the family’s patriarch could cast this girl out is shocking – against the backdrop of America where girls and women clearly have rights, even if they aren’t always rigorously enforced. This girl seems caught at an interstice between two cultures – there has been an American outcry against her father’s comments, and yet murmurs in web reaction that pulling a young girl, recently emigrated, from her nuclear family and into the foster care system, could also be hazardous to her well being and recovery. As well, there has been outcry about the depiction of the Liberian family and the boys as crude or savage and in need of paternalistic American protection. There have also been subsequent reports in which the girl’s father has been portrayed as “confused” by American authority or his English simply not good enough to fully comprehend the situation. In this piece he is cited as recanting, although the girl’s sister reinforces the idea that the girl shouldn’t have followed the boys, and is stirring up trouble when they are all of the same nationality.

Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has responded urging the girl’s family to help her as well as suggesting the alleged attackers are also offered counseling by the US authorities. She acknowledges, “Let me say very clearly that rape is a problem in Liberia also. There is a strong law regarding that.” Tony Weedor is again cited as noting that “rape was not against the law in Liberia until 2006. Pamela Scully, a professor of women’s studies and African studies at Emory University in Atlanta is quoted in this report as saying, “When you’re dealing with children this young, they’re mimicking actions they’ve seen, they’ve heard about, they’ve grown up with.”

In my research this past year I’ve been heartened to see how many international organizations are working hard to turn around the perception, often in third-world countries, that girls are of lesser value than boys and to reinforce their often unrecognized centrality to family and village systems. But there is a long distance to go, often fraught with tensions between respecting tradition and upending injustice. This girl’s plight, caught in a crossroad of cultural concerns, highlights the multiple ways in which sexual assault for girls is still construed. I wish I could write that there aren’t also American families that would counsel keeping quiet about a girl’s rape for fear of bringing shame on their families as well, or advertising the “ruin” of a girl’s reputation. Despite however else this cultural clash plays out, sympathy for the girl seems widespread with, at the very least, recognition of the brutality of what she has been through, with the hope that she will receive help, however differently defined.

Lisa Belkin, ever on top of the nuances and foibles of dating, mating and family making in our time, points in a recent Sunday New York Times magazine section to a new study that is sure to make (at least some) men squirm and women, as she puts it, “chortle” with delight, although the news is, for anyone who thinks about having kids, actually sobering.

Women often bear excruciating pressures around choosing when to have a child, from all angles, while men are told their biology is limitless, hence their chance at fatherhood is as well.  Not so anymore.  Throughout the past few years more and more evidence is coming to light linking a father’s age at conception to schizophrenia, autism, and bipolar disorder, as she points out (while the mother’s age at conception shows no such correlation).  Two years ago the New York Times also ran a piece entitled “It Seems the Fertility Clock Ticks for Men, Too.” Now, Belkin highlights an Australian study that shows that children born to “older fathers have, on average, lower scores on tests of intelligence than those born to younger dads.”

There are those who will take issue with the research, claim there’s no adjustment for environment, individual father’s IQ, parental involvement and more.  But here are the two lines that made me want to sit up and shout “so there!”: “French researchers reported last year that the chance of a couple conceiving begins to fall when the man is older than 35 and falls sharply if he is older than 40.”  Later in the article Belkin quotes Dr. Dolores Malaspina, a professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center who says, it turns out the optimal age for being a mother is the same as the optimal age for being a father.  Ha! I wanted to shout at the screen as I was reading.

Really, what I wanted was to do was shout this to all the 50something men who, when I was 35 and entering into the online dating world, contacted me, ignoring their agemates, specifically because they felt they were “finally ready” to get around to starting a family.  Most were utterly unapologetic that part of what they were seeking was a woman they perceived to be still fertile enough to incubate their suddenly desired offspring.  My response that being contacted in part so I could incubate a legacy child for them was insulting often fell on deaf ears.

But what Belkin gets to at the end of her article — and what I think bears far more exploration — is how scientific evidence that men too have a ticking biological clock could undermine what is a commonly socially accepted timeline  women, shelf life and expiration date with fertility is fixed, men, well, they can always Tony Randall it, and procreate as he did in his 77th year.  (Nevermind that in this New York Times article, “He’s Not My Grandpa. He’s My Dad,” Randall’s widow, left with two children under age 10, questions if her own long-range planning was all that wise and admits she’d tell her daughter not to marry an “older man.”

While women have been tying themselves in knots over the message (given freely from everyone ranging from their OB/GYNS to their grandmothers) that they’d better not wait too long to have a child or their time will run out, most men seem to blithely assume there’s never an end point, an assumption social convention has largely supported.  One past wannabe suitor even told me he thought it was great that his retirement would coincide neatly with his imagined child’s toddler years. When I asked him how much of his child’s life he expected to experience (did he think he’d ever be a grandfather if his child waited till his 50s to reproduce as well?) he admitted that just wasn’t something he had thought much about.

Beneath the social mating dance I experienced was the baseline assumption that male biology justified that men can start families whenever they want and their ageist attitudes toward women’s viability in this domain also went unquestioned, a mindset that smacks of patriarchal privilege.  Belkin rightly points out how if this attitude was questioned, based on science, the mating priorities of both sexes could be upended, and changing that assumption is likely a good thing.

What if, Belkin asks, the dynamic I found myself in was reversed, and women now saw men as “too old” to procreate with?  Men might have to date women in their own age bracket, or, more shockingly be forced to admit that they too can be aged out of the window in which they can procreate, maybe not as much for biological reasons, as for social ones, if younger women refuse them, now using scientific evidence as to why they’re not good genetic material — a neat reversal to what men have been doing for years.

Larger than this, I think, is questioning how social structures could reform if 35-year-old men didn’t want to climb up the ladder singlemindedly anymore, because they knew their chances at fatherhood would decline if they waited and then sheared off a cliff at age 40.  Would childcare finally be a priority in the workplace, or paternity leave?  Some of this speaks to who’s still mainly responsible for childcare once a child is present, but if men and women were biologically on the same timetable — as science more and more strongly suggests they are — could there be a reach towards a more equitable view of balancing work and family, instead of mostly women spending many an angsty moment in their 30s wondering just how this is all going to work out.

If a new understanding of blending career trajectory with family hits a man at 27, rather than 47 (the magic number, I found, when it seemed to dawn on unmarried men ‘hmmm better get on this wife and kids thing’), how could this change social expectations as they cross with biological imperatives?  Yet, I take to heart Belkin’s comment that this might just be another thing that women will worry about rather than men.

And I’m sure the press will never blow up this story (lonely 50something man faces the fact he’ll never have kids!) the way this narrative comes around every few years as a cautionary tale meant for younger women not to wait too long or be too picky. Also galling is the propensity to hear humorous smirking at “late fatherhood” (“he’s still got it in him!”), yet more common is the vilification of “older women,” who conceive using donor eggs, as ridiculously selfish in starting a late-in-life family. “But it would be a satisfying start if men had to pause and see age as part of their biological equation, too,” says Belkin.

I couldn’t agree more.

Hello again, Girl w/Penners!  I’ve been sequestering myself this fall as I finish work on a book of my own but I am very glad to jump back into getting the word out about some of the amazing new books that explore the realities of contemporary women’s lives.

You know that feeling when you sense a new book, acquaintance, or connection is going to be deeply important to you and you’ve stumbled onto something that will be profoundly affecting? That’s how I felt when I first saw the title Mama, PhD— putting together two terms that aren’t usually seen in conjunction – which is, of course, the whole point of this collection. Its rich collection of essays explores how these two topics mesh (and more often crash and contort).  By the time I finished reading, my book had as many underlines, post-its and corner-turned-pages as any of my graduate school texts and I daresay had far greater an impact.

The contributors in this book, edited by Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans, break the seal of silence that suppresses the intense difficulties and institutionalized prejudice that academics who want to be more than just a “head on a stick” – but rather a whole person, including a maternal body – experience. And the pressures that result for women as their likely prime childbearing years meet squarely with the ticking of the tenure clock is intense.  The book’s contributors, from a range of academic fields and even generations, outline in often poignant and sometimes excruciating detail how they are forced to choose between career and family, or find creative, often exhausting, and most likely just plain lucky ways to tie the two together.

The book’s preface mentions all the bleak statistics about motherhood and academe that now seem to almost be accepted as givens: “women who have at least one child within five years post doctorate are significantly less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children early in their careers,” and female faculty are “more than twice as likely than men to report having fewer children than wanted.” And the news only gets worse from there.

In a field that often demands new entrants move every few years till landing a tenure-track spot, and then bases the golden egg of permanent job security entirely on those first six years, the demand to sacrifice everything (including family) to this race is unrelenting.

Despite balanced numbers with gender in graduate school, the authors point to the disproportionate number of women who end up in adjunct and non-tenure-track positions (with far less in compensation), and the often wide discrepancy in gender when looking at tenure and advancement, as women who choose to have families just can’t fit their plans into an institutionalized male model that still doesn’t offer standard maternity leave, ways to stop the tenure clock for a few years, and often still assumes a new hire comes with a stay-at-home wife whose career is negotiable — if it exists at all.

Exploring just how insidious this is and how entrenched the schism between parenthood and academe remains is this book’s strength. While the contributors’ fields are different, along with part of the country they land in, type of school, and feelings about teaching and research as a career, the connective thread between their stories is very strong: the “interruption” of children is not welcome in what is meant to be an ever ascending climb up the ivory tower.  Just why the “life of the mind” is meant to exclude the “life of the body” is a wrenching contradiction that the writers, high achievers all, ably explore as they meet with obstacles they never envisioned and feel deceived by a system in which they were used to thriving.  The angst of trying to manage separate identities, (mother, academic) and yet remain a whole person is viscerally felt throughout.

From the comments that pregnant graduate students report receiving from advisors (“we had such high hopes for you”), to feeling pressure to “perform childlessness” as one writer describes it, there seems to be no place for the maternal body in the academy (despite graduating in those flowing doctoral robes).  In Susan O’Doherty’s essay she describes a fellow male graduate student waxing rhapsodic about the joys of having kids and when she asks what he does when one of his kids is ill, he blithely replies that it’s great that his wife (also a graduate student) conveniently “has a pretty flexible schedule.” Comments of this kind – that reveal that such things as a sick kid or the unpredictable timing of giving birth aren’t accommodated – just keep coming.  “Keep up with your job” a senior faculty member tells Alissa McElreath at a holiday party she attends with her toddler, “don’t get too caught up in the mommy thing.”

I found myself most intrigued by the writers who articulated both the overarching framework and the undercurrent pull that pits parenthood against an institutionalized male model of achievement that hasn’t yielded an inch. The pressures, subtle or overt, seem excruciating, and often ironic, as many women thought academe would be a great career to pair with having a family.

Although the essays by those writers who left clearly outline the irreconcilable differences that caused them to separate from institutions that didn’t support them, or even felt abusive in their demands, I found myself thinking again how their departure perpetuates the brain drain of women in academe and keeps the rusty wheels of an outmoded system turning, rather than kicking them off.  It’s not opt-out lassitude that steers them away as much as the impossible juggling act, fraught with guilt, pressure, and anxiety, as many writers point to the lack of flexibility, status and wage equivalency in part-time work, and rewriting of the tenure laws that is needed.

The book’s last two essays feel like a necessary and buoying way to close the book. “Momifesto” is a primer co-written by four contributors with examples of responses to colleagues’ assumptions about combining teaching and parenthood that is meant to change the conversation.  In the final essay, “In Dreams Begins Possibilities – Or, Anybody Have Time for a Change?” writer Judith Sanders outlines the necessary institutional adjustments critical for women to bring their whole selves to academe and I love that her cry for more flexible yet dignified work paths includes the demand that men can only participate equally in child care and housework if they can work less too.  On Mama Ph.D’s website there’s a call for submissions for a book about dads in academe and I will be eager to see this when it comes out.

This a book I want to give to every graduate student – male and female – starting down the doctoral path who is even thinking of having kids. The realities encountered by the writers are sobering, but there is joy too – in the pure love of learning each seems to experience (even if the career path they loftily first envisioned came crashing down) as they find other creative, and sometimes more meaningful ways to apply their knowledge.  And certainly, there is joy, and even defiance, in insisting their maternal bodies be brought into the equations of academe instead of being erased out, simply by having a child.

-Elline Lipkin