Tag Archives: social change

A Female Perspective

I was asked to make a (Zoom)presentation to a group of O’Neill women students, focused on “women and politics.” This is what I said.
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I think I have always been a “political” person, in the sense that the question that has always fascinated me is a question that most women wrestle with in one way or another: how should people live together? What sort of social and political arrangements are most likely to nourish our humanity and promote—in Aristotle’s term—human flourishing? If the old African proverb is right, if it “takes a village to raise a child,” what should that village look like, and how should its inhabitants behave? How do we build that kind of village? Politics is the process of turning our answers to those questions into policy—and since women’s answers have been shaped by our life experiences, it is important that women’s voices be part of the policy process.

You have asked me to share my experiences as a professional and political woman, so let me get the biography out of the way. I was born in 1941, and I am very much a product of the 1950s, way before any of you were born. It was a time when women went to college to find a husband, a time when we were expected to be decorative and submissive—or at the very least, quiet. (You can see why I had a problem.)

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, where being Jewish was at best exotic and at worst, Satanic, and where I was usually the only Jew my classmates had ever encountered. Those experiences undoubtedly deepened my interest in social divisions and the effects of marginalization. They also kindled an ongoing fascination with the ways in which religions shape our worldviews.

I left Anderson for college when I was 16. I wanted to major in liberal arts, but my father insisted that I get a teaching degree, because if my eventual husband died, I would need something to fall back on. At the time, educated women were secretaries, teachers or nurses; I couldn’t type and the sight of blood made me queasy. That left teaching. Because I was so young, my parents sent me to Stephens College for Women, a two-year school that took very seriously its obligation to act in loco parentis. After Stephens, I briefly attended the University of North Carolina, where the most indelible lesson I learned was that when you pay Full Professors 3000/year, you get what you pay for. (Even in the 1950s, 3000 wasn’t much.) I transferred to IU Bloomington to finish my undergraduate degree, got married and divorced, and later did a semester at Butler, pursuing an MA in literature that I never finished.

I married a second time and took my first job (well, first if you don’t count the summer I worked for my father’s friend at his—no kidding—Cadillac-Rambler agency, where I was billed as Anderson’s first female used car salesman.) I began my adult work life as a high school English teacher. When I became pregnant with my first child, however, I could no longer teach—Even though I was married, those days, once women teachers “showed,” we could no longer be in the classroom. The theory evidently was that the kids would know what we’d been up to…

I went to law school when I was 30 and had three small children (four if you count the husband I had at the time). There were very few women in law school then, and my most important epiphany revolved around the need for potty parity… the few women’s restrooms were for the secretarial staff and inconvenient for students. After graduating law school, I was the first female lawyer hired at what was then Baker and Daniels.

To give you a flavor of the time—serial interviews with prospective associates were conducted by several of the partners, and I was in conversation with two who were being very careful not to ask improper questions—this was barely ten years after creation of the EEOC. Since I had three children, I thought it reasonable to volunteer my childcare arrangements. One of the partners was so obviously relieved that I wasn’t acting like some sort of radical bra-burning feminist, he blurted out: “It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with being a woman. We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

I practiced corporate law for three years, until Bill Hudnut asked me to take charge of the City’s legal department. I was the first woman to serve as Corporation Counsel in Indianapolis–or, to the best of my knowledge, in any major metropolitan area. At the time, Indianapolis had two newspapers. The afternoon paper, the Indianapolis News, had a front-page “gossip” blurb, and I still recall its juicy little item after my appointment was announced: “What high-ranking city official appointed his most recent honey to a prominent position…” I guess it was inconceivable that I’d been appointed because I was a decent lawyer, or even because I represented a constituency Bill was reaching out to. Gotta sell papers…

I left City Hall to be the Republican candidate for Congress in 1980, running against Andy Jacobs, Jr., in what was then Indiana’s 11th Congressional district. That was back when Republicans were still rational, and political campaigns less toxic. I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and I won a Republican primary. The worst name I called Andy was Democrat. My youngest son later served as his Congressional page, and after Andy retired, he and I would occasionally have lunch. As I say, things were different then….
I also remarried during that campaign and I’m happy to report that the third time was the charm—it’s been 41 years and counting.

After losing the election, I practiced law, started a Real Estate Development Company that went broke during the recession of the late 1980s, and served six years as the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU. I joined IUPUI’s faculty in 1998.

I’ve lived through the women’s movement, the Civil Rights movement, the 60s, the sexual revolution (I missed it by 6 years!), the gay rights movement, the decades of religious zealotry that a friend calls “America’s most recent Great Awakening,” and a dizzying explosion of new technologies. As George Burns once said, I’m so old I remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.

I became politically active at nineteen, as a Republican. I was persuaded—and remain persuaded—by what has been called the “libertarian principle,” the belief that the best society is one in which individuals are free to set and pursue our own life goals, determine our own telos, so long as we don’t harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to grant an equal right to others. Back then, with some notable exceptions, the GOP understood the importance of “so long as” in those last two caveats. Times, obviously, have changed. The political party to which I belonged no longer exists, except in name.

For those who begin with the libertarian principle as I just shared it, good faith political arguments tend to revolve around the nature and severity of the “harms” that government can legitimately prohibit or regulate, and the extent of government’s obligation to provide a physical and social infrastructure to be paid for through citizens’ “dues,” called taxes. Needless to say, we are not having those good faith arguments today—instead, we are in a culture war– what may well be an existential struggle between science and reason on the one hand, and a variety of fundamentalisms on the other.

Women do not do well in culture wars.

Of the nine books I’ve written, the two that taught me the most—the ones that required the “deepest dives” into our philosophy of government and suggested some answers to Aristotle’s question—were God and Country: America in Red and Blue and my small textbook Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth.

The research I did for God and Country provided me with a lens through which I’ve come to understand so much of our current political environment. Policymaking has become a power struggle between Puritans who believe government should make the rest of us live “godly” lives, based upon their particular version of what’s godly, and those of us who demand that government act on what John Rawls called “public reasons,” based upon logical persuasion and scientific and empirical understandings. Contemporary Puritans remain deeply antagonistic to the Enlightenment and to secular ways of knowing—especially science—and they utterly reject the notion that each of us gets to define our own morality. Scroll down a Facebook page, or read the comments section of an online newspaper, and you’ll come across posts from fundamentalists of various stripes who wrap themselves in victimhood whenever government fails to impose their preferred worldviews on everyone else. And as most women understand, those preferred worldviews almost always include a “biblically-mandated” submission of women.

Another example is the effort—in Indiana and elsewhere—to exempt so-called “bible-believing Christians” from compliance with otherwise applicable civil rights laws. In our system, religious citizens have absolute liberty to believe whatever they want—that’s the individual rights pole of the continuum. But religious or political beliefs, no matter how sincere, don’t entitle people to sacrifice newborns or bomb abortion clinics, and they don’t entitle them to engage in behavior that is contrary to America’s cultural and legal commitment to civic equality. That’s the public good end of the continuum. There’s no religious privilege to behave in ways that we collectively deem destructive to America’s social health.

Let me just share a final observation: Social justice is a term we don’t hear very often these days. Social justice is aspirational, and its elements are subject to debate, but at its heart, the concept is concerned with mutual obligation and the common good. In its broadest outlines, a just society is one that meets the basic human needs of its members, without regard to their identities, genders or social status—a society that doesn’t draw invidious distinctions between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist, Republican and Democrat, or any of the other categories into which we like to sort our fellow humans. It is a society that recognizes and respects the inherent dignity and value of each person.

We should want to make our society more just for many reasons, practical as well as moral: for one thing, a more equitable society is in the long-term best interests of even those people who don’t feel any obligation to feed hungry children or find jobs for ex-offenders or make health care accessible to poor people. That’s because in order to remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to make use of all its talent. Social systems that prevent people from contributing their talents cost all of us in lost opportunities and unrealized promise.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and I also know that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Systemic barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

Even more daunting, when I look at today’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people. I see crazy people.

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” Black and brown people and “uppity women” are obvious targets.

I have hopes that your generation will be able to reverse this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We humans flourish through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

And women only flourish in a society that understands that.

 

Picturing Change

I know this blog can often be a downer. Especially during the Trump years, there has just been so much damage, so much polarization, so much hate–it’s sometimes hard to focus on areas of actual improvement.

Today, however, I want to do just that.

Social and cultural changes are almost always slow, but I am not the only observer who looked at the people protesting after George Floyd’s murder and saw multi-racial, multi-ethnic crowds who weren’t there during previous era protests. And much as I worry about disinformation in today’s fragmented media landscape, I firmly believe that certain of the changes in that media have prompted social change for the better.

Pictures matter.

Until he retired, I team-taught a course–Media and Public Affairs–with Jim Brown, then Dean of the Journalism School. We created the course, which was offered to both journalism and public affairs students. Thanks to Jim, I learned a lot–probably a good deal  more than the students.

Jim was a photojournalist, and thanks to his insights, I learned to appreciate the impact of pictures on social attitudes, and to see how photojournalism practices of the country’s newspapers had fed and supported racism. For years, the old media truism–if it bleeds, it leads–led to the publication of (often dark and grainy) photographs of people accused of crimes.  Those photographs tended to be disproportionately of Black offenders. Worse, in the early days of television and in rural areas of the country, those were often the only portrayals of African-Americans that white Americans saw.

There weren’t interviews with Black scientists or doctors, no “human interest” pieces about Black educators or successful businesspeople. Aside from sports, television didn’t feature talented Black performers. A recent “Sunday Morning” interview with Leslie Uggams included the story of her hiring by Mitch Miller; she was the first regular Black performer on a nationally-syndicated show, and a number of southern stations threatened to stop airing it if she remained. (Miller, to his credit, ignored the threat.)

Today, our televisions and newspapers, as well as our workplaces and other parts of our environments, are far more representative of American reality. There are African-American newscasters, entertainers, scientists…And that increased representation isn’t limited to Blacks. Women are now news anchors, weather-people and even sports commentators. Figures with Asian and Latino names are prominent.

For the past decade or so, the media has been delivering a far more accurate picture of America and American diversity.

If you look at the names on the list of credits accompanying a television drama or movie, you will see a wide range of ethnicities represented. Actors no longer feel the need to “Americanize” their names in order to be acceptable to folks who might be put off by anything stranger than Smith or Jones.

And then, of course, we had a Black President.

Granted, the response from the hard-core racists to all of this has been hysterical. When Obama was elected, the rocks lifted and the cockroaches crawled out in force. But for eight years, the rest of us saw a class act–a cultivated, brilliant lawyer with a great sense of humor, an impressive way with words, an equally accomplished wife and an impeccable family life–a vivid contrast with his crude, inarticulate and ignorant White successor.

This forced encounter with the reality of America’s diversity has been anything but smooth or easy. Those old White guys of a certain age (and plenty of younger ones) have looked at the pictures that are everywhere–uppity women executives, newscasters of all races and genders (many with Latino or Asian names), Black people famous for something other than sports (and uppity women who are famous for sports!)–and seen only their own loss of dominant status. They’ve resisted. Some violently.

But the pictures are there, not just in the traditional media, but in the viral testimonies captured by those ubiquitous cellphone cameras. The visual environment has changed, and with it, the broader culture. Americans are talking about privilege. We are talking about injustice. About representation. We’re seeing the world–and ourselves–far more accurately.

We aren’t nearly “there” yet. But we’re picturing it.

 

 

What Women Want

Less than one week to go…Polls suggest that the gender gap will be decisive.

Speaking of the “women’s vote,” on the hundredth anniversary of the expansion of the franchise to women, Pew fielded a survey to see just where we females see the movement for gender equality–how far have we come, and how far do we still have to go?

Among those who think the country still has work to do in achieving gender equality, 77% point to sexual harassment as a major obstacle to women having equal rights with men. Fewer, but still majorities, point to women not having the same legal rights as men (67%), different societal expectations for men and women (66%) and not enough women in positions of power (64%) as major obstacles to gender equality. Women are more likely than men to see each of these as a major obstacle.

Many of those who say it is important for men and women to have equal rights point to aspects of the workplace when asked about what gender equality would look like. Fully 45% volunteer that a society where women have equal rights with men would include equal pay. An additional 19% say there would be no discrimination in hiring, promotion or educational opportunities. About one-in-ten say women would be more equally represented in business or political leadership.

I look at the charts and graphs that put numbers to these observations, and I certainly have no disagreement with the essential observations. Women are still not treated as equal in either business or political life, and the obstacles are pretty much what is portrayed.

Maybe it’s because I’m old, or maybe it’s because my own insights have been formed by personal experience–I was among an early cohort that deviated from traditional expectations for women– but I think achieving genuine equality is more complicated than such surveys suggest. Modern laws and fair-minded judges will only take us so far (and needless to say, we’re having enough trouble achieving that).

Social change is slow and difficult.

Science and technology have been huge contributors to a world in which women can be equal. It is hard to overstate the impact of the birth control pill, for example; when women could reliably control their reproduction, they were suddenly free to enter the working world. It was no longer necessary to choose between motherhood (or a sex life) and a career. You could plan for both. Meanwhile, technology has remade the world of work, making brute strength far less important than mental acuity, and opening  new career possibilities for which women’s skills were well-adapted.

Social acceptance of these changes has been much slower than the changes themselves. When I graduated from law school, male attorneys were reluctantly adjusting to the newfangled emergence of what many called “lady lawyers.” Retail establishments and banks were still limiting the extension of credit to “male breadwinners.”  Social expectations ingrained over generations don’t turn on a dime.

Some people welcome change. Most don’t. My students, who have grown up in a world no longer dominated exclusively by white Christian males have a very different approach to gender equality (not to mention racial equality and sexual orientation) than the old white men who were socialized in a very different time.

White men now in their 70s and 80s were born into a world that promised them a certain status, and a significant number of them–thankfully, not all– deeply resent the “uppity” women and minorities who they believe have denied them their rightful place atop society. Their misogyny gave us Donald Trump, among other things.

That generation is dying off, and my granddaughters live in a much more equal world than the one in which I grew up. It isn’t perfect, but it’s much better.

Recognizing that attitude change is generational is certainly no reason to accept discriminatory laws, or to shrug off offensive sexual behaviors, or to stop pushing for fundamental gender fairness.

On the other hand, keeping our expectations realistic helps keep our blood pressure down.

Meanwhile, we need to vote!

 

Predicting The Future

It’s impossible to pick up a magazine or log into a blog or website without coming across an article predicting how dramatically the Coronavirus pandemic will change the world.

As Steven Pearlstein recently wrote in the Washington Post,  self-appointed soothsayers are predicting the demise of globalization, the triumph of large enterprises over small business, and dramatic lifestyle changes brought about by fear of dangerous microbes:
everything from diminished travel, as people “think twice about boarding an airplane, checking into a hotel, attending a concert or taking their kids to Disney World” to the emptying out of expensive cities, since so many of us–and our employers– have discovered that we can work just as well from home.

Time to take a deep breath.

I certainly don’t have a crystal ball–nor do I claim any particular expertise in “futurism,” but these predictions strike me as fanciful at best and absurd at worst. Just look at how desperately people are returning to their previous behaviors, even in the face of warnings that it is dangerously early for such return. Humans are creatures of habit.

We are dependent upon those international supply chains. Our families are scattered around the globe, and we still want to visit them. Often, on airplanes. Etc.  Although there is likely to be movement toward remote work, that movement has been underway for quite some time, and it is necessarily limited–not just because many jobs require our physical presence, but because so many of us see real value in face-to-face interactions with our coworkers.

All of this is not to say that change is not underway. It is–and much of the social unrest we are seeing is attributable to it. The pandemic may accelerate some part of the broader social changes that were occurring when it hit–or it may retard some–but the real shifts have been underway for years, fostered by improved transportation and communication technologies and demographics.

I suspect that changes in the wake of the video of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer will turn out to be far more consequential than those triggered by the pandemic.

Last year, Gallup documented major social changes that have occurred “since Woodstock”: religious attachment has waned, support for marijuana legalization has grown, interracial marriage–and its acceptance– has increased, a majority of Americans now support reproductive rights, voters are far more willing to elect women or people of color, family sizes have shrunk, and given the option, most women now prefer to enter the workforce to staying home. And of course– to belabor the obvious–attitudes about premarital sex and LGBTQ citizens have dramatically changed.

There is a (hotly disputed) academic theory that posits cultural “swings” every forty or fifty years. Whatever the accuracy of that theory, anyone even slightly conversant with social history can recognize how the disruptions of one era lay a foundation for those of the next, and how technological innovations affect those changes (usually, in unanticipated ways).

My absolutely non-crystal-ball conclusion is that humans are approaching one of our inevitable turning points. (This one is made far more dangerous by climate change, and by the sheer number of humans on our planet.) One aspect of our new reality is already visible: thanks to demographic change and significantly increased urbanization, it has become far more difficult for people to live in geographic–as opposed to ideological–bubbles, far more difficult for most folks to ignore the reality of human diversity and the complexities of our daily social interactions.

At times like these, when social transformation seems overwhelming, people everywhere fall into two broad (very broad) categories–those who accept the new realities and those who reject them. Those who adapt–or try to– and those who panic.

In the United States, the MAGA folks, the alt-right provocateurs, the fundamentalist preachers, the Fox-News audience members and their ilk are clinging to a world that no longer exists, insisting that we can bring back a time when everyone knew their place– and the straight white Christian guy’s place was on top.

The pandemic will impel some changes around the edges, but the real transformation will be produced by people who recognize the necessity of building a different, fairer world. I’m betting that there are enough of those people, that they outnumber and certainly out-think the reactionaries, and that the disorientation and unrest we are now experiencing will ultimately lead to a vastly improved social contract.

I sure hope I win that bet….

 

 

Speaking of the War on Women…

Social change almost always happens slowly and unevenly, and while it is occurring, people who were socialized into older worldviews must co-exist (uneasily) with those who have adopted the emerging paradigms.

I am old enough to have seen enormous changes in the way women participate in American society. With the exception of a brief period after high school and before marriage, my mother was a homemaker until my father’s death required her to enter the work force in her 60s. She was one of a legion of intelligent, talented women who should have had a career; she chafed as a housewife and was much happier after she went to work. Working for pay during the marriage, however, would have reflected poorly on my father’s ability to support his family, so like most of her middle-class peers, she stayed home.

Girls were supposed to be demure and decorative when I was growing up. I once overheard a cousin tell my mother “It’s nice that Sheila reads so much, since she’s unlikely to date. Boys like girls who are pretty, not smart.”

Later, when I went to law school, many “friends” let me know they were troubled by my choice; I had three young children, and according to the social mores of the time, my place was at home tending to them. I still remember people warning me that my children would all “do drugs” if I pursued a career–and I vividly recall a partner at the firm I joined (as the first woman ever hired) reassuring me that “There’s nothing wrong with being a woman. Why, we hired a man with a glass eye once!”

So–as the commercial says, we really have “come a long way, baby.” But as the “me too” movement, the persistence of the glass ceiling, and statistics about earning discrepancies all attest, we also have a long way to go.

In 2016, a substantial number of Americans didn’t find Trump’s taped admission of sexual assault reason to disqualify him from the Presidency–and a not-insignificant number of voters explicitly based their rejection of Hillary Clinton on her gender. (A friend of our handyman told me that some men he worked with had volunteered that they would never vote for a woman–any woman– because  a woman simply couldn’t “handle” being President.)

Granted, few prominent Americans are as forthright about their misogyny as Philippine President Duarte, who recently boasted that he had ordered soldiers to shoot female communist guerrillas in the genitals.

“Tell the soldiers, ‘There’s a new order coming from the mayor,’ ” the president said in a speech, recalling a directive he said he had given when he was mayor of Davao City. “ ‘We will not kill you. We will just shoot you in the vagina.’ ”

Duterte has repeatedly expressed hostility to women in the country’s political insurgency, saying they should have stayed home and raised children.

Most American politicians avoid expressing anti-women sentiments quite so forcefully, but there are plenty of signs that similar underlying worldviews–ranging from “women should be submissive to men,” to “women should stay home with their children,” to “women really welcome male ‘attention’ and just say no in order to play hard to get”–remain ubiquitous.

These cultural attitudes are a holdover from times long past, when physical strength was needed for most jobs, and families had to have lots of children, both to help support the family and to replace the large numbers who died in infancy.

As any sociologist will confirm, longstanding cultural assumptions are slow to change. As any political scientist will attest, people who enjoy power or status rarely relinquish those privileged positions out of the goodness of their hearts.

When Obama was elected, we saw the depth and persistence of widespread racism that had largely gone underground. As women claim the right to participate in a workforce in which we are both fairly compensated and unmolested, we are encountering equally deep-seated paternalistic resistance.

That resistance will persist at least until the men (and women) glued to Fox News pass from the scene.

Or as I tell my students, once my age cohort is dead, things really should improve.