Maybe Everyone Needs to Lighten Up

Madeline AlbrightWhen former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” it was humor, albeit  sardonic humor. It was an expression that was common during the Women’s Movement, and like a lot of sardonic humor, it carried much truth with it.

Not, for heaven’s sake, that anyone really meant to condemn a person to eternal damnation, if they even believed such a thing. It was just an extreme way to say, “We really all ought to be sticking together here in these times.”

Lord knows, there were plenty of examples of those who deserved that reminder. In corporations, women who’d managed to claw their way up to a managerial position previously denied to their gender would sometimes become jealous of their unique status and loathe to allow any other woman to share their exalted status. The backbiting and in-fighting could become quite fierce.

At a newspaper where I worked there was one longtime woman reporter in the city room where “real news” coverage took place, while any other women reporters hired were relegated to the society or women’s news sections. The word around the shop was that any time the city editor tried to move a second woman into his department, the first woman made daily life so miserable for the newcomer that she would soon quit in disgust. When I confronted the editor, he told me the reason he didn’t like to hire women was because when he yelled at them they cried. I said, “You might find that some women would yell back.”

(And to myself I said, “I’d rather die than let you see me cry.” Besides, being from New Jersey, I had a repertoire of words I could employ before any tears got shed. I would have liked to have had an opportunity to try, but we moved away before I could convince the editor to give me a shot.)

As an older person, I understand why women my age are frustrated by the fact that younger women view all those battles as so much ancient history. I’m sure I was just as guilty at discounting the contributions of my predecessors. We were young and invincible and our way was the only way. In time, today’s millennials will be where we are today, but I hope by then they’ll have learned to recognize humor when they hear it.

Albright issued an apology for the context in which her remark was issued in a very thoughtful op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Gloria Steinem is 80!

gloria steinem

And she’s marking it by going to Botswana to ride elephants.

An article in The New York Times is titled “This Is What 80 Looks Like,” and according to the article’s author Gail Collins, 80 looks every bit as glamorous as every other decade for this feminist icon. Smart, articulate, open, empathetic and yes, glamorous, Gloria Steinem has served as a lodestar for many women of my generation. Sure, there were plenty of others who pushed gender equality along its slow, torturous journey, starting even before 19th century suffragists in England and the United States. But Steinem is special.

Collins calls her “the face of feminism” and writes, “For young women who were hoping to stand up for their rights without being called man-haters, she was evidence that it was possible to be true to your sisters while also being really, really attractive to the opposite sex.” But while men tended to concentrate on Steinem’s appearance, what mattered most to her was what was going on inside her head and others’, which is why, Collins says, this most famous person is approachable and intent on paying attention to the thoughts of those she meets in her travels around the world.

It was not only men who tended to concentrate on women’s external attributes while dismissing the internal. Some years ago I connected with an older woman who had been my boss years earlier. She told me what she had said about me to another editor when recommending me for a job. “I told her she would never be embarrassed about your appearance when sending you out on assignment.” Big whoop, I thought. I’d have preferred if she’d said I was a good writer. Or a fast writer. Or dependable. Or kept my desk neat. But I’m sure she thought I was flattered.

Graduating from college as I did in 1960, I always felt our generation of women sat on the cusp of the women’s movement, ready to fall either back toward the 1950s or ahead toward the future. Some of my contemporaries did tend to emulate their mothers, buying into the ‘50s narrative of women’s place in the home, nurturing the children and serving as the husband’s helpmate. But others were afflicted with this nagging idea that “there has to be more to life than this.”

My friend Margo and I, both young mothers in Sacramento, discovered we were simultaneously reading Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique and exclaiming every few pages, “Yes!” A while ago, one of my daughters borrowed my copy of the book and had great difficulty getting into it; I don’t think she ever finished. She didn’t get it. You had to be there, I suppose.

I was an early subscriber to Ms., the magazine Steinem co-founded and edited for 15 years. But I am chagrined to say that somewhere along the years I let the subscription lapse. So much to read, so little time. However, looking over the accomplishments of this writer, lecturer, editor and feminist activist as enumerated on her official website, I feel like a complete slacker. What have I done with my time? I haven’t even ridden an elephant, though I’m a few (very few) years behind Steinem in age. I did ride a camel, though, out onto the Sahara in Timbuctu. I wonder if that counts for something. Probably not.

Bring on the elephants!