Second Look

Just when I manage to climb out of the depressing pit so much of the news plunges me into these days, some new outrageous incident pushes me back down.  My latest ‘back in the dumps’ experience is the news coverage of the young mother fired by Whole Foods in Chicago.  Rhiannon Broschat didn’t come in to work because city schools were closed due to frigid temperatures and she could not find care for her special needs son.  She called in ahead of her shift to alert the store management.

My reaction to the first news about Rhiannon was disbelief.  There had to be more to the story.  Whole Foods cultivates such a wholesome, ‘we-care- about-your-health-and-well-being’ corporate image. They tout their charitable contributions. They refer to their workforce as ‘team members’. Why would they jeopardize their brand  so cavalierly?

I looked for other new coverage, for statements from company officials. Perhaps Rhiannon had been a problem employee? Perhaps the termination had nothing to do with this particular absence? Maybe there were other, more serious offenses?

The answer?  “Well, not really.”

Whole Foods has a point system at stores in the Midwest. An employee is allowed to accumulate five points every six months. ‘Unexcused absences’, (a slippery term at Whole foods, it seems), equal a point and incidences of tardiness equate to varying fractions of a point.  Anyone accumulating more than five points within a six-month period is fired. Rhiannon had accumulated five points prior to the closing of schools that exceptionally cold day. According to Whole Foods they simply followed the policy.  Rhiannon and her supporters insist her shift manager told her she understood Rhiannon’s situation and that the young mother should stay home with her son. Rhiannon assumed her situation fit the definition of ‘excused absence’.

But the real issue is not who said what, but the policy itself and the appalling lack of security and flexibility low income workers confront in the workplace.

Feminists have fought for decades for family friendly policies that reflect the realities of women’s lives. But success in areas of paid family and medical leave is dismal. Two thirds of workers receiving the minimum wage are women, but  is rare for such jobs to offer a even a single paid sick day.  Only three states, Rhode Island, New Jersey and California have legislated paid leave policies. Of course, the higher your salary, the greater your chances of working in a setting where paid leave for family emergencies is employer-provided or negotiable. Rhiannon’s story is illustrative of the larger issue. No wonder over 60,000 people across the country signed a petition demanding that Whole Foods reconsider their decision to terminate her employment.

Last December Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. The legislation would set up a national paid leave insurance program funded by contributions from both workers and employers—each contributing 0.2 percent of wages. It is legislation that ought to command enthusiastic, bipartisan support. As numerous studies have shown, family friendly policies are not only good for workers, they can have positive effects for employers and the economy. For example, see here,  here,  here and here.

Women are the vast majority of primary caregivers for families and children. Thus it is women who pay the highest price when forced to choose between a paycheck and people we love who need our care. Whether through lost income, or fewer promotions or increased stress, women experience a large proportion of the negative effects a lack of family friendly policies produces. None of this is new news.

The United States is the only nation in the developed world that does not guarantee any type of paid leave. It is also a nation where ‘family values’ receive lots of airtime and political spin. There is no spin that can hide the reality: either many of those in positions of power are terribly ignorant of how the majority of Americans live or they simply don’t care about anyone outside their immediate social circle. Either way, it’s pretty discouraging.  But action can be a good antidote for discouragement. To use language Whole Foods is comfortable with, let’s get on the team—the one working for passage of the FAMILY Act.






















Recent Girl w/Pen posts—Stop the War on Pink—Let’s Take a Look at Toys for Boys by Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe, Who’s Afraid of the War on Pink from Girl w/Pen founder Deborah Siegel, and Girls, Boys, Feminism, Toys, a dialogue between Deborah and feminist author Rebecca Hains—all focus on how  ‘gender coding’ toys via color and sex specific illustrations harms kids of both sexes.  The discussion underlines how long feminist change can take. It also illustrates the popular influence of those who claim to be pro-child, but thread old, unfounded gender stereotypes throughout their public pronouncements and publications, promoting the notion that from birth girls and boys learn, play and relate in vastly different ways.

This makes it difficult to avoid letting discussions related to gender fall into a binary frame. As so many of us have pointed out for more years than I care to recall, these issues are not either/or, zero sum ones.  Much of the content and comments on the posts mentioned above have reiterated these points.  Yet hanging around in the public mind are ideas reflecting beliefs such as ‘helping girls equals hurting boys’ or ‘progress for boys is a set back for girls’ or ‘working on behalf of girls means ignoring boys’. Nonsense.  A gender equitable environment is one where assumptions of differences based primarily on one’s sex and/or gender affiliation are not part of the picture.  No serious feminist has ever argued otherwise.

In their post Deborah and Rebecca refer to Christina Hoff Sommers’ 2001 book, The War Against Boys . Sommers’ claimed that efforts on behalf of girls were a direct cause of much that was not working for boys in our nations schools.  I was one of the feminists who responded that actually, what was good for girls was also good for boys and vice versa.  Those of us, women and men, who shared this perspective, offered numerous examples: new methods of teaching science, better sex education, more physical activities for both boys and girls, a de-emphasis on traditional, option-limiting gender roles.

Of course, the hitch here is and always has been what is considered “good’.  If you want to continue the status quo, then you want to do all sorts of things that involve emphasizing gender differences— different toys, different teaching methods, different schools, different opportunities in sports and yes, even different signature colors.  This is a deeply conservative agenda.  It is an agenda that says,’ well, the roles of women and men have changed enough, we certainly don’t want anymore.’

It seems that the more  progress we make  toward less rigid gender roles, the more extreme the gender coding of toys becomes. Back in my December, 2012 post, Pink is for Girls, Black is for Boys, I noted that 2012 marked the fortieth anniversary of the best selling children’s record, Free To Be You and Me. Yet the Free To Be message—  everyone in our society needed a wider, less gender-specific range of choices and these choices should begin in childhood—was missing in the toy stores I visited.  The toys were far more color coded than four decades ago. Back then bikes, trucks, airplanes and even dolls sported a wide range of bright colors—red, green, yellow as well as shades of blue and rose.  The pink/lavender vs. black/ dark navy dichotomy is a division that, among other things, probably helps sales. Teach children and parents the color-code and you double your market.  What little brother will want to settle for his big sister’s pink tricycle?

But what may be good for sales is very bad for kids and ultimately for all of us. Rigid gender roles inhibit equality, limit individual flexibility, and rob us of our fullest selves.  Thank goodness for the Let Toys Be Toys Project and other similar efforts.

And lets not forget that whether the news media noticed or not, working for changes in gendered assumptions about male roles has been part of the feminist agenda for decades.  Change for women without change for men isn’t the change we hoped for fifty years ago and it isn’t the change feminist men and women, whether in the fields of women’s studies, girls’ studies, gender studies or masculinity studies are working for now.

In fact one of the great things about Girl w/Pen bloggers is that we span all these fields and more and we do so across traditional academic disciplines as well as generational lines.  When I directed the Wellesley Centers for Women, the sign on my desk read, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”   Girl w/Pen feels like my old office these days!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother, come here! Now!”

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

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

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

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

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








Thanksgiving is a week away.  The holiday is uniquely American, grounded in our history rather than our various religions, in a sense of family and community rather than military victories. Increasingly, commercial aspects have intruded on family priorities, but it remains a time when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and hopefully, to recognize and support those less fortunate. I wish it could also be a time for many of us to do more than feel good about spending a few hours serving turkey dinners at a shelter for battered women or homeless families. I wish it could be a time to consider the steps needed to eliminate the poverty, violence and hopelessness that create the need for such places.

But as the holiday approaches our nation confronts the largest levels of income inequality in close to a century. A college education remains a key to economic success but is less affordable every year. These realities are coupled with unrelenting, well-funded efforts that disproportionately effect the poorest among us: women and children; the elderly; those with disabilities.

Attacks against health care reform and the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), fierce opposition to an increase in the minimum wage, measures to cut off access to safe abortion, are all in the news and on the political playing field. And for some it appears that is exactly what these critical issues are—political play things. Play it right; insure your privileged position.  The idea that actual individuals—mothers, grandparents, children, war veterans, caregivers—will suffer and that those most affected are powerless to change the dynamics of the political game seem lost in allegiance to one’s group or one’s ambition, or both.

Political differences are important ingredients in any democracy, but robust measures of compassion and compromise are required as well.  Empathy for those living in less fortunate circumstances appears missing from the calculations of some of the most powerful players–those inside as well as outside political office.

How can this be?

Two recent studies offer clues. Research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley revealed that the economically advantaged are less likely to express compassion for others than are people with lower incomes. Jennifer Stellar, the lead author of the study said, “It’s not that the upper classes are cold hearted. They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of the suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

A second study by Canadian researchers found that a sense of power can influence how people respond to others by changing the way the brain functions. Feeling powerful tends to diminish brain signals that foster empathy.

Yet obviously many powerful, affluent people are deeply compassionate and emphatic. These research studies are not about inevitable outcomes, they simply point to danger signals.

We live in a country where economic disparities foster experiences that enhance a sense of power among the affluent. These same economic divisions result in communities segregated by income, communities where few personal encounters of any depth take place across socio-economic lines. Understanding the circumstances of others becomes more difficult for everyone.

My wish this Thanksgiving is for time to consider the dangers extreme income inequality, an absence of empathy and failures of compassion pose for our country.  Feminists have long pointed out that there are no individual solutions to society-wide problems. Every one of us, politicians included, must find ways to work together if democracy is to flourish.


The past few weeks have been particularly discouraging for anyone who follows politics and believes in reasoned discourse. Hoping the local news here in town might be more to my liking, I sat down to read The Wellesley Townsman for the first time in months.  The International Day of the Girl was coming up on the 11th of October; maybe there’d be interesting coverage of girls in the area. There was.  But whether the front-page story on the girls’ softball team was encouraging or not remains a dilemma.

The headline read, “A Level Playing Field”, followed by the subhead, “Sixth grader’s frustrated letter lands her in influential company.”  The story went on to recount how, as a fifth grader, Emily Willrich had written to the Townsman about her frustrations with the differences between town sports’ opportunities for girls and boys. There were excellent facilities available to the boys’ baseball team–a well maintained field complete with brick dugouts, night-lights, a scoreboard, and even an announcer. The girls’ softball team was relegated to a scruffy field where the lights didn’t work and at times umpires never showed up.  Emily’s letter reached the President of nearby Simmons College, who invited her to be a special guest at a college=sponsored event, “How Women Become Political”. Emily, now in sixth grade, had a chance to meet and talk with Gloria Steinem and several prominent female politicians, including Massachusetts’ gubernatorial candidate, Martha Coakley.

My first reaction was, “Wow, what a great example of  feminist progress and ‘girl power!”   Forty years ago girls weren’t allowed to play Little League, and there certainly weren’t  any town wide girls’ softball teams when I was growing up in Mystic, Connecticut.  The closest I managed to get to a town playing field was as the semi-official score keeper for the boys’ baseball team my father coached.  I learned to be a baseball watcher, not a baseball player. ‘Everyone knew’ sports were more important for boys.

Reading the article a second time, I questioned my initial response. A 5th grader had to raise the issue?  In the second decade of the 21st century?  Where were the adults?  What about Title IX and the guarantee of equality?  But Title IX covers only programs sponsored by educational institutions receiving federal funds. It doesn’t address town teams.  Maybe my delight was misplaced, maybe being appalled was more on target.  A young girl challenging unfairness with confidence is wonderful; it might not have happened in the years before feminism’s empowering messages took hold. But old gendered assumptions remaining so deeply embedded that no one in this upscale  town seemed concerned about the inequitable sports facilities  is, indeed, appalling.  The news story presented the proverbial half-full/half-empty glass: ‘how far we’ve come; but how far we have to go’.

The Townsmen article concluded by reporting that Emily’s mother didn’t know if her daughter’s passion for fairness might lead to a career in politics. “We’re excited to find out. Nothing she does would surprise us.”

I, for one, hope Emily will pour at least some of her passion into politics. We need her. These discouraging weeks of Congressional malfunction have highlighted the critical importance of women in political office, not simply for women, but for the entire nation.  Women in the U.S. Senate have authored most of the major bills passed this session.  Female Senators are credited with the initial steps resulting in the compromise that has finally reopened the government.  Women are consistently more bipartisan than their male counterparts in their approach to legislation.  And studies repeatedly indicate that women—regardless of their political affiliation–tend to sponsor and vote for laws that support families in larger percentages than do their male colleagues.

So, we come to another half-full/ half-empty dilemma. Currently only 20 of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate are women–an all time high. As far as progress for women and girls goes, it will be a long  time before we can discard the metaphor of  the half-full/ half-empty glass . Personally, I prefer the energizing half-full perspective; but I never forget the empty half of the glass. It’s a constant reminder of  work unfinished.








Two critical pieces of U.S. voting rights legislation mark anniversaries this August: the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920 guaranteeing women the vote and the 1965 Voting Rights Act ensuring every citizen regardless of race or language equal access to the voting booth. Unfortunately, there is little time to celebrate past victories. Critical new battles are underway in the struggle for equal voting rights.

This past June the Supreme Court dismantled Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 required states with a history of racial discrimination to receive prior federal approval before making changes in voting regulations. Immediately some states moved to implement laws previously blocked by Section 4. Others proposed radical new legislation restricting access to voting.

Many Americans seem to forget how hard fought the battles for voting rights have been, how many suffered and died.  Maybe they don’t read their history books; maybe they don’t  pay attention to what’s happening around them. Others simply don’t care. They apparently believe in full democracy only when it suits their own purposes.

The history of the 19th amendment and the decades of effort before its final ratification were not included in my schoolbooks. I learned these lessons from my childhood friend, Miss Georgiana Fulton. She told of the suffragists who picketed President Wilson at the White House in 1917. She urged me to read about the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, and how abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s eloquent speech helped convince delegates to include Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s controversial demand for women’s suffrage.

I met Miss Fulton the spring I was eight.  She was in her seventies and lived alone in a ram-shackled cottage without indoor plumbing. Most of the other kids thought she was crazy. But I loved the sweet smelling hyacinths in her overgrown garden and one day she invited me in.

Soon I was stopping every few days on my way home from school.   Miss Fulton told wonderful stories–of leaving Shreveport, LA on her own to study art in Paris in 1900, of the artists she knew in New York, and of places nearby where wild violets grew in abundance. She helped me with my schoolwork and often asked me interesting questions I couldn’t answer. Some of the questions were about issues we now refer to as civil rights.

Miss Fulton was fierce in her determination that I understand that women had fought for the right to vote. She once lectured me when I told her girls could be class president just like boys. Her words are still alive in my mind. “That’s fine, child, but mark my words, there’s no equality yet. And don’t you ever let them say, ‘women were given the right to vote’.  They say that now, I know they say it, but it’s not true, not true!”

I was in seventh grade when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v the Board of Education. Our teacher told us the decision was one of the most important in decades and that our lives would be better because of it.

Miss Fulton had a different reaction. “Child, listen to me. There will be trouble home in ‘Luziana; they won’t like this at all.”

I tried to argue with her. “It’s only fair, how can someone say people have to be separated because of the color of their skin? That’s not right!”

“Ah, child, you are not listening. You know nothing about this.” Miss Fulton’s voice was sharp, and her words stuck in my head, “I’m not saying the decision was wrong, I’m saying things can be right and still not succeed.”

“Change comes hard, child, very hard,” she continued, “You mark my words, girl, these things are much more complicated than you or your teacher know. You’ll learn.”

Miss Fulton was right; I had a lot to learn. And the foundation for much of my learning started with her stories.

We all have stories to tell when it comes to things we care about—our own, or those we’ve made our own because they’ve touched and impressed us. People need to hear these stories.  They convey more than information, they carry emotion, conviction and care.

Change does come hard, and people do fear it. Stories that lodge in the mind and linger in the heart can make a difference. Such stories inspire commitment and sustain perseverance. An abundance of both is required in the unfinished struggle for equal rights–in the voting booth and beyond.

In 1968 the documentary Hunger In America aired on CBS. The film exposed the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition in the United States. I was among the many who were shocked. The sight of children with distended bellies begging on the streets of Calcutta had kept me awake nights as I traveled back from my first job teaching in Taiwan. A year later I’d married a man who worked for CARE and often accompanied him distributing food and cooking oil to villagers in the Dominican Republic. I knew too many people in too many places were hungry every day. I knew that poverty and hunger were ugly killers.  But until the documentary aired I was ignorant of the extent of hunger and malnutrition in the United States.

The film and the outcry that followed generated additional Congressional support for efforts in various areas to make good use of food surpluses and feed people in need. By 1974 the Food Stamp Program, (now known officially as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), was operating across the nation.

Hunger continues to plague America, but for four decades food stamps have been one of the most effective and efficient federal efforts directed toward the alleviation the severe, long lasting consequences of malnutrition. The food stamps have done more than any other government program to lift children out of extreme poverty.

Thus last week’s passage of a farm bill without any consideration of food stamps and other food assistance programs, struck me as more than just another Congressional wrangle between political parties with divergent agendas. It went beyond the anti-woman/anti child proposals cloaked in pious platitudes. This was a vote in favor of hunger, a pro-poverty vote.

The republican rationale for separating farm policies from food for the hungry went like this: separation facilitates cuts to agribusiness subsidies; food stamps can be addressed later.  But few could miss the obvious agenda in conservative rhetoric: drastic cuts to ‘wasteful spending’ on nutrition programs for those seen as lazy, work adverse freeloaders responsible for swelling the ranks of program beneficiaries.

This rationale flies in the face of facts. Forty one percent of food stamp recipients live in households with at least one wage earner and less than ten percent of those receiving food stamps are also receiving welfare benefits.

Furthermore, years of data on the food stamp program indicate that in economic downturns more people need and use food stamps; but as the economy improves, the number needing assistance declines. Studies also reveal that more than seventy percent of food stamp recipients live in households with children, many headed by single working mothers; more than one-quarter live with senior citizens or people with disabilities. Put another way forty-seven percent of all those receiving food stamps are children and a significant number of recipients are unable to work due to debilitating conditions.

Far from being a rip off of taxpayer money, the SNAP program is an investment in the nation’s future. Research repeatedly shows that children with nutritious diets are healthier and do better in school than their malnourished classmates. Studies comparing children living in poverty who receive SNAP assistance with those who do not find consistent advantages in healthy development for program beneficiaries. Pregnant women with healthy diets give birth to healthier babies.

But the positive benefits of food stamps are not restricted to infants and children.  Benefits extend well in to adulthood. Last November the National Bureau of Economic Research released a working paper, “Long Term Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net”, co-authored by Hilary Hoynes, Diane Schanzenbach and Douglas Almond. Their research revealed that adults with access to food stamps as children in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the final trimester in utero and early childhood, had significantly better health than adults from similar backgrounds who had not received nutritional assistance.  Better health included lower incidents of serious metabolic syndrome conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.  Furthermore, women receiving food stamp assistance as children fared better economically in adulthood. They were less apt to be receiving safety net benefits than similar adult women without access to food stamps during childhood.

Giving children a nutritious start in life is the first step in raising healthy, economically productive, community-minded citizens. No democracy can succeed with out such a citizenry.  We knew this more than sixty years ago when the first major pieces of the food stamp program were initiated. Today’s willful “forgetting”  is shortsighted and dangerous. Those who do so should not be allowed to argue that they “didn’t know the facts”. Ignorance of the law is not an acceptable excuse in legal proceedings; ignorance of fact should be viewed as equally unacceptable in matters of public policy.







My daughter Amy turned 43 last week and on Saturday we’ll have a big party for her. Amy is party girl through and through and I always look forward to her birthday with delight. But yesterday my happy anticipation was dampened by a casual comment from a friend, “I know you must be tired of having little kid birthday parties after all these years.”


Yes, I’ve given and/or helped plan lots of parties for Amy, parties that still involve aspects often associated with younger children. Amy has intellectual and physical disabilities; she requires more care than my friends’ daughters and sons.  Sometimes I’m exhausted by extensive mothering duties I’ll never out grow.  But tired of parties for Amy? Never!

Harilyn Rousso’s new book, Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back, caught my attention the instant I glanced at the title.   The anecdote above is part of the reason.  Rousso, whose complicated birth resulted in cerebral palsy and noticeable physical impairments–slurred speech, facial grimaces, an uneven gait–addresses head on the ways many well meaning people assume that anyone with a disability is to be avoided, ignored, pitied–or admired simply for living with her disability. She writes, “I know, I know, if you were me, you’d never leave your house and maybe even kill yourself. So, I am inspirational because I haven’t committed suicide…”

Parents of children with disabilities often elicit some of these same reactions, especially if they are single parents.  I have cared for Amy pretty much on my own since she was a young child. I have plenty of experience with the ins and outs of caring and advocating for first, children, and then gradually disabled people of all ages.  I know many of the realities; I know the heartaches. But I also know the joys.

Rousso gives us an intimate glimpse of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go–as a society and as individuals–in providing not simply equal access, but equal acceptance and genuine inclusion. Her searing insider’s view of feminist organizations and what they have NOT done to support and learn from women with disabilities is part of her story. It is a story that should be required reading for every feminist.

The evolution of civil rights for people with disabilities built on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. By 1975 the passage of the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act made it illegal to deny access to public education to disabled children. But Rousso, whose mother insisted her daughter could and would do everything other children did, attended public schools years earlier.  Dealing with substantial physical challenges, but gifted intellectually, she went on to earn a degree in economics from Brandeis and to train as a therapist at a psychoanalytic institute.  She was asked to leave at the end of her first year—the leaders of the institute thought the signs of her cerebral palsy would distress clients.

Rousso writes with painful honesty of how this obviously illegal, enraging discrimination led her to a clearer understanding of prejudices against people with disabilities—her own as well as those  of others.  The incident, as hurtful as it was, helped her to move from denying her disabilities to identifying with the disabled community, and to “embrace my identity as a person with a disability still further.” Moving reminders of how slow and incomplete this process is for the author and for society are scattered throughout the memoir.

Rousso was a feminist before she was a disability activist. She was puzzled by feminist obliviousness to the double (or triple, if you were a women of color) whammy confronting women with disabilities.  As a board member of various feminist organizations, usually the first and only disabled member, she experienced the excruciatingly slow pace with which many of her new colleagues came to understand these dynamics. Her ‘outsider’ status was one often shared by women of color, she later discovered.  Writing today, she notes “[F]eminists have become more inclusive…[But] even today disabled women are more likely to be included out of obligation…They are not seen as a rich source of diversity. The welcome mat is not yet out.”

The memoir’s 52 brief chapters resemble a conversation with a new friend. We learn first a bit, then a bit more about her life; gradually additional details emerge as the acquaintance deepens. Rousso’s book has the power to trigger further conversations–conversations critical to moving beyond the damaging misconceptions and prejudice still surrounding people with disabilities.

Most feminists, particularly those of us with close personal experience with disabilities, think we understand the issues. We think we are doing what we can, maybe even all we can.  Maybe we are. Maybe we aren’t.  We need to talk about it.


Rarely a week goes by without a news story or blog post related to single-sex public K-12 education. Coverage often focuses on the ways in which girls and/or boys benefit from these settings and the ‘research’ that allegedly supports these claims. All this numbs the mind of someone who remembers the passage of Title IX and the hopes associated with it.

I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Girls took home economics, whether we wanted to or not. Boys took shop classes under the same assumptions–one was for girls and one was for boys.  I didn’t question these assumptions, but I did wish I could participate in track and field; my only school sponsored ‘sports’ options were cheerleading and girls basketball. Cheerleading wasn’t much of a sport and girls basketball was full of rules about not running across center line and how many bounces were allowed when dribbling the ball.  My father helped me set up a backyard long jump and a ‘pole vault’ with an old mattress and a stick between two poles. It was fun, but it wasn’t ‘real.’

The passage of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program receiving federal financial assistance. Some exceptions were allowed for existing single-sex schools and for instruction in specific areas such as human sexuality and for contact sports. Feminists celebrated.  No longer could schools schedule classes in advanced English and physics at the same time and steer girls to one and boys to the other. No longer would it be legal to provide unequal school-sponsored sports opportunities. Best of all, gendered stereotypes limiting options for both sexes would diminish significantly as girls and boys were educated as equals in the same schools and classrooms. Or so we hoped.

Today the idea of restricting access to course offerings on the basis of sex is as old fashioned as separate job listings for men and women. Girls and boys increasingly see each other as equally capable of achieving in a wide range of fields. But continued advocacy for single-sex public education is ample proof of the strength of outmoded gender myths.

Rather than exploring the far more common similarities among girls and boys, many educators, parents, and policy makers have succumbed to pseudo-scientific theories of large sex differences in cognitive and emotional skills and learning styles. These theories have been debunked repeatedly. Nonetheless, many remain convinced that sex segregation is the best approach when it comes to the education of our children.

In fact, so many believe this to be the case, that in 2006 the Bush Administration’s Department of Education issued a new Title IX regulation which allows more single-sex options in public schools. This regulation is confusing but does require justifying single-sex instruction by showing that it addresses specific educational needs, objectives and opportunities not otherwise met in coeducational classes, and without limiting opportunities available to any student.  However, so far the largely anecdotal evidence cited for single-sex success has faded under more careful scrutiny. To date there is no convincing evidence that single-sex public K-12 schooling is superior to coeducation.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan recently addressed the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference in San Francisco. Reiterating his belief in the importance of research in formulating educational policy, he noted, “We need you, the researchers, to answer the question “which approach works better—this one or that one–and then we need to move forward informed by your answer.”

If current research on the shortcomings of single sex education is not convincing enough for Secretary Duncan and other education policy makers, if they still support public funding for single-sex approaches, then perhaps it is time for increased evaluation of these offerings.

Working with educational researchers around the country, The Feminist Majority Foundation has proposed suggested guidelines for schools considering or already implementing single-sex approaches in public K-12 schools. These have been submitted to the Department of Education for comment and adoption. The guidelines recommend careful planning and process evaluation as key aspects of single-sex programs. Such steps are critical to solid evaluations of outcomes. And only careful outcome evaluation can document whether single-sex approaches have succeeded in decreasing sex discriminatory education and attaining other stated education achievement goals better than comparably well funded, staffed and planned coeducational approaches.

Particularly in tight economic times, scarce public resources must be focused on effective, legally sound, equitable education–education equally available to all. If careful research and evaluation show some single-sex approaches meet these criteria, such programs should be promoted and replicated in appropriate settings. Any single-sex approaches that do not meet these criteria should be halted immediately.  With limited public funds and clear legal requirements to address, there is no more time for programs based on what people think they know. We need educational approaches grounded in what careful research shows is effective.

There’s a new petition making the rounds; one I signed quickly, although it left me profoundly discouraged. The editorial board of New Moon Girls , a magazine for young girls, is asking Target to stop color coding its toy aisles. Colored coded toy aisles?  In  2012?  In the year in which we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the ground breaking record Free to Be You and Me?  After more than four decades of work on non sexist  school books and studies on the importance of encouraging girls and boys to explore skills and careers outside traditional gender stereotypical ones?  After all this we have color coded toy aisles?

I couldn’t get my head around it.  What had I missed in the past decade as the items topping my daughter’s Christmas list moved from toys to clothes and computers?  I needed to see for myself.  In a nearby mall there’s a Target where I’ve shopped from time to time, but never in the toy aisles. This time I wandered only in the toy section.  Indeed, glancing down the rows of toys, some rows were distinctly pink, others dark, at first glance mostly black. But what produced the colors was not, as I had begun to imagine, actual pink shelving or pink signage, it was pink packaging. And it was  black, navy blue and deep purple packaging that produced the dark aisles. There were no signs saying ‘girls’ or ‘boys’, the colors spoke for themselves.  It’s a message no child or parent can miss.

But what struck me as much as the grouping by color was the extremely rigid way the toy manufacturers had color coded the toys and their packages.  I hunted with very little success for red trucks, for dolls dressed in yellow or green outfits, for little cooking sets with bright colors rather than pastel pots and pans. Even in the one row near the store entrance that had several boxes of dolls on the same shelf with boxes of various toy machines–snow mobiles, rocket ships and airplanes—the stereotypical two colors proclaimed:  “GIRL!”  “BOY!”  All the dolls were dressed in pink except for a few in very light blue with silver sparkles.  All the vehicles were black or grey with an occasional purple stripe or bit of flaming orange.

Interestingly, the aisles with books and games were far less color coded, at least at the Target store I visited. Book covers and game boxes did not, with the glaring exception of some very pink games, display the same degree of color coding found in the toy aisles. It appears more acceptable for girls and boys to, at least some of the time, read the same books or participate in the same games, than it is to play with any but the most gender stereotypical toys.

Yes, Target should try harder to mix up its toy aisles. We should all sign the petition.  But  we also need to pressure toy manufacturers.  First order of business, more colors for everyone. A rigid two color code for toys, pink for girls, dark and black for boys undoubtedly simplifies manufacturing and store inventories.  It’s good for business.  It is not good for children.

What about more brightly colored cars and airplanes, or boy dolls as well as girl dolls? What about addressing the lack of girls playing with cars on the front of those packages or the absence of boys on the cooking sets?  What about more diversity in terms of racial background? Almost of the faces on the boxes I saw were white.  We all want affordable toys for our children, but surely there are ways to provide a wider range of choices for parents and children than those available in the toy aisles at Target.

If any of us thought the battle for less gender stereotyped toys had been won, we were wrong. We’re a long way from fulfilling the 40 year old promise of the Marlo Thomas song, Free to be You and Me.  Our work must include renewed attention to the gendered messages that greet children and their parents every time they wander through a toy store.