Fresh Stuff on Gender Equality

This article in today’s NY Times, by Philip Cohen (whose excellent blog Family Inequality is right here on WP – check it out), is a welcome reply to the unfortunately premature idea floating around these days that the patriarchy is dead because women have largely achieved equality. How I wish that were true.

And if you need evidence that it’s not true, here’s one recent study showing that when science faculty members examined the exact same two application packages, with the only difference being the applicants’ male versus female identities, the faculty rated the male applicant’s materials significantly higher than the female’s. The study was also published here in Scientific American. So much for scientific objectivity.

Cohen comes at the puzzle of gender inequality from a different angle: he explains that gender equality stalled in the 1990s and has never regained its astonishing momentum from the 1970s and 80s, and he’s got the data to back up his claims. What happened?

Well, read the article for the fine print, but basically it boils down to two things: First, some women have been able to choose careers that were once exclusive to men, but the opposite is not true. On the whole, men have not been breaking down doors to sign up for work traditionally done by women, for obvious reasons – low pay and social stigma. The result is stalled integration of the work force.

Second, the lack of work-family policies in the U.S. punishes mothers by making it insanely difficult, expensive, and stressful for us to have kids and a career (not just jobs outside the home, which most mothers have, but a rewarding career of our choice), for reasons that most people understand. That part is fairly obvious, but Cohen’s attention to the roles and choices of both mothers and fathers is refreshing.

But his solution raises a question: If we had, as he recommends, “family leave, reduced work hours, and public child care,” how much would these benefits truly “unblock the path toward gender equality,” particularly in the light of other data showing that (even) scientists still have deeply entrenched gender bias against women who are just as qualified as their male counterparts?

Which raises another, more general question: how much of gender inequality is rooted in practical difficulties, like lack of affordable child care, and how much of it persists because of ideologies and attitudes that might or might not be driving those practical difficulties?

In an uncomplicated world, we’d be able to find out pretty easily: let’s just be like those humane industrialized countries and institute the work-family policies, and we’d have an obvious, far-reaching point of comparison.

In the world we have, things are a bit messier, but Cohen adds some much-needed seriousness to a conversation that has lately suffered more than its share of sloppy thinking.

Review: The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman

Road trips in the U.S. are always more exotic in theory. The real thing generally means bad radio and fake food for three-hundred miles. In my view, any deliberate trip longer than two hours with small children is a concerning sign of masochism.

That’s why the best road trips are in stories. And the best story for kids (but really any age) I found this year is by Darcy Pattison, who gives us a trip that is wild and sweet and strangely haunting.

The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman starts out with young Tameka writing to her favorite uncle, Raymond Johnson, begging him to visit her in California. Ray would love to, but he’s swamped with his carpentry work in South Carolina.

But Ray, it turns out, is no ordinary carpenter: Since he can’t visit in person, he builds a wooden man, Oliver, fits him with a backpack, and sends him off to “hitchhike” out west. Inside the pack he places a note ostensibly written by Oliver, asking whoever finds him on the highway to take him to Tameka’s house and to “drop a note to my friend Raymond Johnson… He wants to keep up with my travels.”

And so begins Oliver’s adventure from Rock Hill to Redcrest. Does he make it in one piece? And will Tameka ever get to see her uncle?

No spoilers here, but while the ending matters, it’s not what really matters in this book. What’s amazing are the people Oliver meets, the letters they write to Ray, and what the journey starts to mean.

Oliver’s rides go from ordinary to the right kind of kooky. We meet Jackson McCavish, a kind farmer who transports Oliver along with a bull named Bert, an amiable trucker headed through Texas, Miss Utah, whose grandfather discovers a lonely Oliver deserted on an Indian reservation, three retired sisters from Kokomo who have decided to blow their inheritance in Reno, and more.

In giving Oliver a lift, they all prove to be good Samaritans, but even better are the ways they adopt the wooden man as their traveling companion. In his note to Ray, trucker Bobbi Jo reports that he likes Oliver because “He never needs bathroom stops. He doesn’t care where we eat. And he stays awake with me all night.”

As the Kokomo sisters cross the Mississippi River for the first time in their lives, they relish their afternoon tea with “Mr. Oliver,” they write, who “has the loveliest manners.”

These characters have imaginations. They don’t just do Ray a favor by transporting a neat gift to his beloved niece; they all need in some way or other to make Oliver a part of their own stories, their own histories, however briefly.

And they all have totally distinct voices. A chaotic, fun brood in Arkansas tells Ray that “Mr. OK is OK.” Oliver “hung out with us for a couple of days, and all the girls liked him better than Quinn. So when Quinn’s cousin’s boyfriend’s aunt was leaving to visit her sick grandfather in Fort Smith, the guys loaded Mr. OK into the aunt’s station wagon and sent him on his way.”

After Oliver’s shadow scares away bears and saves a family camping in the Redwood Forest, the dad reports his discovery of Oliver in lawyerish prose: “Our family, currently on vacation, picked up the above-named person in what I thought was a misguided goodwill gesture. Little did I know how lucky that gesture would be.”

Pattison’s rhetoric is brilliant in another way too: the adventure is so absorbing that we hardly notice she has just slipped an epistolary tale under the noses of her elementary audience; the entire book is a series of letters, many exchanged by people who never meet in person.

The book is great for teaching everything from writing and rhetoric, to character analysis, to geography (there’s a cool map in the back showing Oliver’s cross-country route).

Sure, the book is idealistic and a little naïve. Oliver isn’t real, so we’re not really sending the message that hitchhiking is safe, kids! No worries here about meeting the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer with his freezer and vat of acid along your highway travels.

And the story assumes people are not just good and helpful but blessed with resources. These days, it’s more likely that Oliver would end up as fuel for an out-of-work family whose heat has been cut off.

But somehow the story doesn’t come off as entirely nostalgic or unrealistic, maybe because the characters seem real in other ways. The trucker Bobbi Jo could really use some company on late-night hauls; Miss Utah seems sort of bored smiling in parades; the Kokomo sisters have never traveled beyond the Mississippi River before. Now they get to gamble a little out west and they’re going to have fun, dammit.

These details make this road trip story feel both classic and hopeful, totally American in a way that seems familiar and comforting but – sadly – just out of reach.

This unassuming story, rooted in the sweet bond between a girl and her uncle, reaches far beyond the personal to imagine the whole country as a community. It’s about celebrating the best of who we might be in the U.S., people who make cool things for others and write letters and take brave trips and want to talk to (and even help) strangers. It sparked a little hope in me about a place I sort of recognize but can’t quite find these days.

Sort of like a lost key, inside the house. Maybe it’s here somewhere. It has to be, right? We used it to get in, didn’t we?

Pregnancy Loss in the Mainstream Press

Much buzz this week about two feature articles, Ariel Levy’s stunning account of her miscarriage in the New Yorker, and New York magazine’s cover story “My Abortion,” which includes 26 vignettes by women of various ages and backgrounds. It’s great to see these issues featured so prominently in magazines like these.

Levy’s account is brilliant and moving. As someone who has suffered a miscarriage, I can tell you that it is a strange and haunting experience in part because we have no culturally sanctioned way of grieving that particular type of loss. The first step toward making miscarriage less isolating is to tell our stories in public. Levy’s story is a gift to herself and to cultures everywhere that have yet to develop rituals of grieving and healing from miscarriage.

The New York piece is trickier, in part because it deals with the choice to end pregnancy, but also because it chooses quantity over quality. Its goal is to show just how common abortion is, in a culture in which – thanks to vehement politics and opposition – the level of rational public discourse doesn’t come close to matching the numbers of abortions that actually occur (approximately one women in three will have an abortion by the age of 45). In this sense, the choice to include many different stories makes sense.

But it does mean a certain loss of complexity and depth; the stories lack an adequate sense of the women’s emotional journeys, which is crucial for readers to develop empathy.

Most of the vignettes are also from the past decade, with only one from the 1960s and one from the 1980s. A wider sampling of the past 50 years would have underscored just how much ground we have lost in reproductive rights in the past two decades, how close we might be to returning to situations like the one represented from 1968.

Still, the piece is an encouraging step toward showing the diversity and complexity of our reproductive lives, and the women’s courage is admirable. Onward.

Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales

Oh how I love Jeanette Winterson and most everything she writes. Along with her stunning novels and her ingenious 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, she writes great reviews that are both brilliant and warm. Read her latest in the Guardian on Oscar Wilde’s book of fairy tales, The Selfish Giant and Other Stories.

What I love about this review is how she explains – and understands the need to explain in our current age of science-worship – the value of fairy tales and fiction in general:

Reason and logic are tools for understanding the world. We need a means for understanding ourselves, too. That is what imagination allows. When a child reads of a Nightingale who bleeds her song into a rose for love’s sake, or of a Selfish Giant who puts a wall round life, or of a Fisherman who wants to be rid of his Soul, or of a statue who feels the suffering of the world more keenly than the Mathematics Master who scoffs at his pupils for dreaming about Angels, the child knows at once both the mystery and truth of such stories…As explanations of the world, fairy stories tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not. There are different ways of knowing.

Read the full review. Read Winterson’s stories. Read Oscar Wilde.