Thursday, April 25, 2013

Gabrielle Reece Is My Kind of Feminist

Gabrielle Reece is my kind of feminist. Not because of the business about being submissive to your husband (about which I think she has been misunderstood), but because of this bit from her April 12th Today Show interview:

 “There is no having it all, …We don’t worry about (men) having it all, so I don’t know where we got this idea to have it all. I think it’s very challenging to think, ‘Oh, I can have it all.’ My children know they can’t have it all…. You have to make choices.’’

It’s not about figuring out how to have it all, but figuring out what the “all” is for you. I am sick and tired of people I have nothing in common with framing the debate on feminism. Anne Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg make me feel like a failure. Who doesn’t make me feel like a failure? Gabrielle Reece. Not that she and I appear to have much in common. I am a short-ish, childless, slightly unkempt freelance writer and occasional lawyer for the ignored. But I could swim a couple of miles in the ocean with her, and it is that physical strength, coupled with her willingness to buck the system, that makes me think more women should listen to her and other female athletes.

I used to aspire to the halls of power. In 1969, when I was four-ish, my parents were called to the principal’s office. My teacher was trying to get us kids to finish sentences comparing things. When she got to the line: “A man can be King and a woman can be_______,” it was my turn. I answered “President” instead of the expected “Queen.” When I was told that was incorrect and to try again, I allegedly balled up my little proto-feminist fists and hollered: “President, president, president.”

While as a teen I certainly envisioned myself as a briefcase carrying, suit-wearing something, the reality of what it took to live that life was not something I could handle. It wasn’t just the control-top pantyhose and heels, but those were certainly factors, I must not lie. I just didn’t like the other people I would have to hang out with in that world. That is something they don’t tell you in school. You have to look around and figure it out for yourself. I just found there were other interesting women at the pool and on the field and in art class and at the dog park.

My 80 year old mother would probably call herself a feminist, if pressed. She never wanted to be financially dependent on a man. Now, she is frail and sick, her body withered by a lifetime of being chauffeured and no exercise. Physical strength wasn’t important to her; financial strength was. It never occurred to her that being physically strong was a component of power and freedom. Yet, the benefit from being physically strong translates into every aspect of life. It’s funny, though; a certain class of intelligent people has always looked down on “jocks,” thinking that they must be dumb if they use their bodies. That same style of categorical thinking leads the Sandberg/Slaughter feminist to believe that any relationship not defined by splitting the household chores equally is demeaning to women. It is not.

As a writer for U.S. Masters Swimming, I have interviewed dozens of female swimmers in their 50s and 60s who are dominating pool and open water races. To a person, they wonder what they might have accomplished had Title IX been around to help them, and they are both proud of and happy for the younger generation of female athletes. I know Title IX did a lot of damage to men’s teams, especially sports other than football and basketball. But we made a choice as a society that women needed a level playing field. That’s what we need in the boardroom; access driven by legislation. 

We need laws for the workplace that do what Title IX did for sports. Women need equal rights and opportunities, not more advice about how to conduct themselves in order to make friends, fit in and get ahead. We need quotas for corporate boards and yes, daycare for all working families. (Although I do hate the way that feminism has been hijacked by mothers. Women need not have given birth to feel the pull of home and hearth.)

So long as feminism in the 21st century is about having and getting rather than doing and being, I worry. In the meantime, I bet I’d enjoy having lunch more with Gabby Reece more than Sheryl Sandberg. And I bet you would too.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Don't Look at the Rock

On March 21, 2013, the wonderful Melissa Block ended a segment on All Things Considered with a quote from George Hartogensis, one of several people interviewed on the subject of guns. “We are a country of chasms,” he said. Both host and interviewee seemed deeply saddened by this commonly accepted fact.

I love NPR and I love Melissa Block – her voice is so perfect for radio. But I have officially reached my limit of stories about the red state/blue state nature of our country. The handwringing is becoming as painful as nails on a chalkboard.  Every media outlet – shoot, even our president – is dedicated to exposing the  differences in our country and how terrible they are. Sure, we are a nation that is deeply divided not only on the issue of guns, but probably on any other issue you can think of: politics, abortion, religion, gay marriage, welfare and more. Cars hate bicyclists. Yankees fans hate the Red Sox. People with front gardens hate dogs. Bird lovers hate cats. People who exercise hate people who don’t. We are a tribal species, and hate is everywhere.

My point is that it always has been. Why must we focus on it so much?
Years ago my husband Rob and I took a whitewater kayaking class. There were about twelve of us in the group and one instructor. The class took place on an easy section of the Chattooga river in north Georgia. We practiced handling our boats in relatively still water as our instructor watched and gave advice about the rapids ahead. He told us where to aim our boats and how to hold our paddles and, most importantly, where not to look.

“Don’t look at the rock,” he said. There was a big flat rock to the right of the rapids that looked unfriendly. We all looked at it nervously. “Your kayak will go where you look. So look straight down the middle of the rapids and you’ll be fine. We’ll re-group at the bottom.”
One by one we each ran the five foot section of rapids. All of us made it except one guy, who was stuck on the rock. Before paddling back upstream to help him, our instructor asked us what he did wrong.

“He looked at the rock,” we all said.

I felt for the guy, and I was glad it wasn't me. It was hard not to look at the rock. I’m pretty sure I closed my eyes and the boat just found its own way down, like an old horse heading back to the barn.
These “chasms” in our country are like the rock. Shining a spotlight only on these differences masks the diversity of opinions people hold and the ways we connect within our chasms. If we keep focusing on what divides us, we’ll get stuck there and not see all the wonderful beauty around us that is moving and changing.

Whether you have noticed it or not, within every group are bridges between individuals. No one has just one opinion. People are complex; even within our chasms we are not clones.  For example, I love dogs, especially pit bulls. Within my group of like-minded pit bull lovers are people with wildly divergent views on things like gun control, gay marriage, politics and whether bourbon or scotch is the better drink. Some are overweight and smoke; some are Buddhist vegans. Some have kids; some don’t. When I interact with these people about pit bulls, I am exposed to their other opinions about other issues. And this is not only good, it is natural and has been happening for all time and will probably contune to happen.
So try not to look at the rock and instead learn something from the water. It flows around some rocks, over others and between even more all while usually staying within its banks.