March 8, 2013
Perhaps that’s a blasphemous thought to voice on International Women’s Day, but it’s something I think about a lot as I try to sell The Broad Experience, not just to the usual suspects, people who are deeply interested in 'women's issues' but to what I think of as normal people - everyone else. It’s been on my mind even more since I watched the documentary ‘Makers’ last week (subtitle: ‘Women Who Made America’). It was three hours in all – no small commitment. I found it fascinating and inspiring. You can watch lots of great short videos featuring women from the film here – women including Sandra Day O’Connor, Condoleeezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Sheryl Sandberg and many others. The Irish-American housewife whose life of domestic abuse was changed after she began reading smuggled copies of 'Ms.' really stands out for me.
I was especially interested because I didn’t come to this topic of women and work through being a feminist. I didn't know much about the women's movement growing up, didn't think twice about the roles men and women played in society, and by the time I was going off to university, the whole thing seemed totally passé. We were beyond that stuff (or so I thought). To this day I haven’t read any feminist theory (it's on my list), and until I moved to the US I don’t think I realized such a thing as ‘gender studies’ even existed. I don't even like the world 'gender', and I'm not the only one. When I was doing research for The Broad Experience last year I got some feedback from a few friends discouraging me from doing anything that focused on women, because they found the whole topic of gender a huge turnoff. I was discouraged from using the word 'women' in the title of my show for the same reason.
I understand. The subject of women's rights has overtones of worthiness that I wish it didn't. It's become something scholarly and serious. And it is serious, particularly when you think about all the women in the world who don't have any rights at all. But somehow it's become something everyone else (i.e. not the people specifically interested in this stuff) groans at when they hear about it - medicine to swallow rather than an interesting topic for intelligent people to engage with. I speak as someone who for years thought of it as such. I came to be interested in this area through a combination of reporting I did for Marketplace, and experiences I had at work - experiences that made me realize I was behaving one way, men were behaving another, and men were getting what they wanted while I was still waiting for a tiara to land on my head (see episode nine for clarification).
I think the idea of women as victims is part of what makes the topic offputting to so many, myself included. [NB: I am NOT implying that women all over the world are not victims. They are. I am talking specifically about the small world of college-educated women in white-collar jobs, because currently the show is aimed at those people.] Perhaps this is why I’m not ashamed to say I support Sheryl Sandberg with her ‘Lean In’ efforts. While I realize there is still plenty of institutional bias remaining at companies and within society, bias that stubbornly refuses to budge, the inner me revolts against dwelling on that too much because I’m driven enough to think I can make at least some kind of difference in the world (and this comes from a natural pessimist). I hate the idea of sitting still and dwelling on the fact that I may be a victim. It's so completely disempowering. Be assured that I have been in work situations that lent themselves to that mindset. Situations where others felt sorry for me but I did not, because I chose to see the situation in a different light rather than wallow in the unfairness of it all. Feminism has for many, I think, become synonymous with the idea of women seeing themselves of victims of an oppressive system. But I don’t think young women see themselves that way at all (you could argue, of course, they haven’t had time to be mangled by the system yet). My perception of women in their twenties and early thirties is that rather than reflect on how hard things are, they want to do something about it instead.
I'd love it if 'women's issues' - at least the non-medical kind - didn't even exist in another 50 years.
[If this post's tone rankles, go to the show's Facebook page to read the reaction of one listener, and my response.]