Wiley Miley and a Thicke Dick [part 1]

[Part 1 of 2.  Maybe]

Quite a few years ago, it was as a young mum with a pre-school daughter when I found myself first finding feminism.  As I came to understand what I thought feminism meant, I saw myself as a someone who advocated for equal rights.  I had, after all, a daughter; a vested interest in the future.  I studied history and that gave me hope for a better future, one where equal rights ensured equal opportunities and equal access to jobs, resources, information, etc.  Equal for all, not just women.  Pretty simple.  Or so I thought.

One night, we were entertaining friends, another young couple.  We were sitting around watching music videos, drinking beer, talking when a video came on – I Touch Myself, by the Divinyls.  At first I was shocked, and then I felt strangely pleased.  I thought it was a brave expression of female sexuality, certainly the first time that I had heard a woman sing so openly about masturbation and it was so beautifully rendered.  I cheered its feminist content.  I felt we had come a long way, baby.  Then my friend asked me:  “Would you like your daughter singing it?”

That gave me pause for thought.  Would I?

The idea of my pre-schooler singing about touching herself whenever she thinks about you was just a little creepy.  That was a gut reaction.  A firm voice inside me said, No.  But I hmmm’d… to my friend and said something about empowering female sexuality but I turned the volume down.  Good thing my daughter was in bed at the time.  It’s not hard when you have small kids:  they come first.  No, I didn’t think it was age appropriate.  My listening habits changed.

It was years until I heard the song again, on YouTube. The girls, I had had another by then, had already left home.  It wasn’t intentional, ignoring the song.  Songs come and go.  I wasn’t about to make it an anthem.  Although over the years it came to mind from time to time.

La la la la Lola
La la la la Lola
La la la la Lola
I’m a man of a man and so is Lola

I was 10 in 1970 when the The Kinks released Lola.  The radio was always on at home, background noise.   I had my own little radio that I used to listen to as I fell asleep at night.  I loved listening to music and I sang along to all the songs I knew, whether I had any idea of what they were singing about or not.  I wonder what my mother thought as I sang my heart out to the chorus of Lola as I cleaned the bathroom.  I remember being perplexed about the last line, was I really hearing what the song was singing: that a man was dressed as a woman, and this guy singing liked her.  If it were true, what did that mean?  I didn’t ask my mother.  No reason why, I just didn’t think she’d know.  Funny what we think when we’re kids.  I just kept singing.

Cut to 2013.

Everyone, it seems, has something to say about Miley Cyrus’ performance on the 2013 Video Music Awards, hosted by MTV.  I’m not going to list them, you can find them easily enough.  Lauren Duca, writing at the Huffington Post posted a clever summary.  Most of the loudest vitriol comes from parents (older people) and women outraged over her overt sexuality and booty grinding on Robin Thicke, her co-crooner in their rendition of that clever little rapey song he wrote and which is now sitting at number one in America.

I haven’t had cable for some time; I don’t know what the last award show was that I watched.  But I remember a time when I looked forward to them with anticipation, a chance to see my favourite stars and musicians, oogle the dresses and “connect” in real time, them in their seats me in mine.  A time when I was young.  And impressionable.

Nowadays I like to check-in online the next day.  I still oogle pictures of the stars, check out who one what, lust after the outfits.  It’s very decadent and I revel in it.  It’s “rock and roll”, no?  Or the Oscars, or Grammy’s.

I didn’t have to wait long on Monday, the day after the VMAs, to hear the scoop.  Miley made the news before I opened my eyes; the whole hedonistic event was described by the radio announcer in raunchy morning DJ detail.  Lovely.

Shock and awe hit America.

Twitter went nuts during the event, pushing the service to record tweets.  The reaction of some audience members was underwhelming.  However, the response of the American public the next morning was ballistic.  Mika Brezenski, of MSNBC’s Morning Joe said what a lot of people must have thoughtBrooke Shields wondered where she went wrong.  Brooke played Hannah Montana’s mom occasionally on the Disney series.  Miley played Hannah.

As a precocious child star, Cyrus charmed the tween set as Hannah Montana and her fans grew to legion-like proportion.  Made her a millionaire, it did.  Disney’s marketing machine took her around the world, and her fans followed.  Alas, in the fictional world of make-believe characters, aging is rarely worked into the story line.  In the parlance of the business, she aged out of her role.

How to find a new one?

Morphing from a child star to a adult one is a delicate business.  Not everyone can do it effectively.  Children who try to grow up too fast can die young, whether rock stars or street youth.  Given the freedom to act independently, with seemingly endless resources, at a time when you’re pretty selfish and focused on yourself and your own desires, as the youth are known to be, can be disastrous.  Ask Lynne Spears or Patty Beiber. Or Billy Ray Cyrus, although as a parent, all you can really do is offer support.  And if you’re truthful and of a certain age, you know because you were there once too.  Ask your parents.

Cyrus’ behavior as she pushed the boundaries has come under the microscope particularly because of her young fan base carried over from her Disney days.  Her fans have grown up around her and those young girls are not 12 anymore.  They’re 18 or 19.  I’m sure she wants to be considered relevant as her peers experiment with sexting, drugs and the brave new world that is the internet.  She has been a prolific tweeter, getting in trouble with inappropriate tweets on a couple of occasions.  To her critics, Cyrus has taken the tact to respond a la Rihanna that she didn’t sign up for the job as role model and she can do what she wants.

It’s our party and we can do what we want to
Dancing with molly
We can do whatever we want
We run things
Things don’t run we
Don’t take nothing from nobody
Trying to get a line in the bathroom
It’s my mouth and I can say what I want to

Choice lines from her latest song: We Can’t Stop

Yup.  No argument there.  You can do and say and be whatever you want to.  But with behavior comes consequences, for everyone.  Sure – it’s your party – until the cops come and shut you down for noise restrictions.  You can do what you want to, as long as you don’t break the laws that everyone has agreed to.  You can say whatever you want, but expect others to say whatever they want back.

The sentiment behind We Can’t Stop is admirable and reminiscent of the Beastie Boys’ (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).  An anthem for a generation.  Too bad it isn’t a better song, but it’s not my generation.  Meh.

But it wasn’t her weird teddy bear get up that got tags wagging, or the way she strode all over the stage in mimic of dance moves.  It was her duet with Robin Thicke-Dick in his rapey song Blurred Lines.  Where he stood still in a black and white striped suit while she stripped off her teddy bear fur and pranced around with a foam finger in a manner that can only be described as lewd, if we go with the Oxford Definition of lewd as “crude and offensive in a sexual way”, although people have been quite colourful in their criticism. Even the foam finger people are offended.

The criticism comes from two camps.  The first response was to her lewd and lascivious ways on the stage, which was fairly obvious, by the slut-shamers.  This response was predicable. But another critique is rising to the top regarding her appropriation of black culture, to which “twerking” belongs.  Not to diminish the cultural appropriation aspect, but twerking is one thing.  Grinding your ass into Thicke’s dick during a prime time show and grabbing your crotch with a foam finger is something just a little different.  Just a little.

Which brings me to a real dilemma: how is it that any criticism of a woman’s sexual behaviour is considered slut-shaming?

Consider:  We kinda want men to get shamed for their doggish ways, don’t we – we women, I’m talking to.   Don’t we?  Do we really look up to the guy who just wants to fuck around?  Who grinds on you on the dance floor?  Who grabs your breasts every time he passes by?  We want men who encounter men who act in doggish ways to raise the bar a little, don’t we, call them on their shit?  Not be our “protectors” but allies in the fight for equal respect etc. etc.

Then why can’t we – and I mean we women – say anything about the sexual behavior of women?  Especially when it’s become so disturbing on the public stage.  There’s a one-upwomanship going on with who can bare the most skin, flash the most boob.  And we’re all ok with that?  I don’t see that happening with the men.  It seems to me that young female stars have completely bought into the objectification of women as a tool for their own empowerment.  And they’re good with that.  It pays for the Maybach, I guess.

And no, I wouldn’t want my daughter to act that way.  Nor do I want my grandson coming to think that it’s “normal” for girls to grind on him, or him on them.  I’m not up for the pornification of North American culture.  Save it for the strip club.

When Michael Jackson grabbed his crotch there was a collective “what was that?” that went up.  Shock to be sure.  Did he have to go to the bathroom?  But because it was the great MJ somehow that became de rigeur for rock stars to do.  Ummm… Ok.  Relevance?  To anything?

Interesting, the pro-Miley camp appears populated with male commentators and sex therapists.  Here, here and here.

Personally I felt saddened by the display.  Just like I feel saddened that young stars who are clearly talented are pressured by their career choreographers to dance to the tune of debauchery rather than their natural talent.  Sex is a very common denominator; to play the sex card is to show little imagination.  But there it is, everywhere.

I also felt disappointment in how off-base the message of female empowerment has become.  Is this the message that young women are taking away from the fight for equal rights? Is this the behavior of empowered young women?  To behave like men?  Although I don’t know, he just stood there, she did all the work.  Seems same old, same old to me.

So many people have stated:  if it had been a man, the blowback wouldn’t have been so severe.  To that I say:  too bad.  No one needs to watch, without warning and a chance to change the channel, what should be either bedroom behaviour or found at a strip club.  I have no problem with strong female sexuality, but Cyrus’ performance smacked more of corporate exploitation masking as freedom of choice.  I don’t blame her, she’s just a young girl with an image to shed and another to take on.  It’s those around her who thought this was  a good idea, for either her career or the unsuspecting audience.

Cyrus will bounce back, she’s a talented woman, the young are resilient, she has family that love her and she will be stronger for running the gauntlet.

Blurred lines indeed.

Next:  Thicke’s (a) Dick

What is Feminism?

That’s a question that I spend significant time mulling around in my mind, but not one that I’ve ever attempted to answer with any kind of intention or purpose.

Yesterday I was a guest on Hamilton Talks, a local cable show hosted by Larry Di Ianni.  He asked me how I would define feminism; not a trick question, although it took me be surprise.  Who doesn’t know what feminism is?  I mean, they’re talked about all the time, those “feminists”.

Now. I can go on and on about feminism, but coming up with a pithy response eluded me.  I simply said that feminism, my feminism, is about equality.  For women and men to have equal access to the same opportunities.  Feminism means that men can stay home just as well as women can work.  That’s the concise and simple answer.   After all, it was the beginning of the interview and he had lots to talk about.  The complete, more complex answer, however, could take up a whole show.  And then some.

So, perhaps just to be better prepared next time, should there be one, and so I don’t have to resort to the tired and trite economic argument  (women earn 70 cents for every dollar men earn), which I did, I thought maybe I’d see what I can do with some purpose and intention.

I’ll give it 1000 words and a Saturday afternoon.

I’ll begin by restating what I said previously:  My feminism is about equality.  For women and men to have equal access to the same opportunities.

One of the reasons that I’ve resisted to define feminism is that feminism is personal to each woman.  Some women are even in denial of their inherent feminism.  That is, perhaps, the challenge of feminism, to try to be all things to all women.  Can’t please everyone, all those other –isms get in the way.

As a feminist, I believe that gender is the primary organizing feature of society.  Some people consider it race, other people gravitate, up and down, toward class.  I’m in the gender camp.  That’s probably because as a white, educated, employed person, I’m at the top of the privilege pile.  All those other factors:  race, class, ability, sexual orientation etc, etc all impact upon the primary identifying element:  gender.  And I mean gender not sex.  But what is gender without sex?

Sex is the biological condition we are born into and is used as the basis for our gender role expectations.  You’d think that would be pretty simple, but sex is not so clear cut when we consider the determining factors.[i]  And as we grow in knowledge about how it is we are who we are, that could change.  In fact, count on it.  So, right now, we consider sex to be determined by chromosomal markers, XX for female, XY for male.  That’s as small as we can see.  For now.

Gender refers to the behavioural and social expectations assigned to each sex.  People have come to use gender when they really mean sex.  This serves to, in some ways, negate the biological, which is dangerous because the biology is important, although we haven’t quite figured out the full extent of it yet. [ii]  Transgender people may be bio-boys or girls, but accept and adopt feminine or masculine gender roles, respectively.  Transexuals take it further and correct the biology to match the behavioural.  Free to be, you and me.

Feminism advocates for equality in access to opportunity, all opportunities, for everyone.

The history of women in the world, the written history of the world, forms the basis of the definition.  For centuries women have been vilified as less than men, soulless, wanton, more evil temptress than holy mother.  Women have paid for their sex through their death in childbirth and in the bonfires of the witchcraft trials.  Women have been held back from education, denied the freedom of movement, of employment, their futures tied to their biology as they birthed baby after baby.  Female gender role expectations have wrapped women solidly up in hearth and home, the space of less importance, private, maternal, yet subject to paternal control, the male head of the house, the house to the state.  Even in her own realm her power was subject to his.  In the face of the law a married woman and her husband were one:  him.  A single woman was redundant.

In advocating for equality in access to opportunity, there are many past wrongs that need to be corrected; attitudes that need to change, perspectives that need expanding.  We are, in Canada, only two generations away from a time when married women were expected to leave the workforce upon marriage, baby plans or not.  A woman’s ability to work is the basis of her economic security.  History has been too clear:  can’t trust the men to take care of the women.  Nice thought, but it hasn’t worked.  The women have to take care of themselves.  In taking care of themselves, they take care of the world:  children, husbands, parents.

It’s not hard to understand when we cast a glance around the world, to cultures where gender roles are firmly entrenched and backed up with social and judicial sanctions, places like Afghanistan or Iran, to see that gender repression can, and indeed does, exist.  Will it continue in the face of greater emphasis on female education and empowerment worldwide remains to be seen.

The pushback is relentless and continues unabated.  However, generational change can be counted on to lead the way to a new tomorrow.  I have more options than my mother, my daughter more than me.  But I’m under no assumption those options are guaranteed.  There is an imperative for women to be involved in the decisions of their time, for their voices to be heard, to be players on the stage of humanity.  Use it or lose it.

Many people will say that they’re humanists to try to capture the essence of equality, of human rights.  Humanists assume an equal playing field – which it is, in their theory.  Feminists see the inequities that accrue to gender role expectations, male and female, and work to level the playing field, particularly for women.  They do the work the humanists assume is already done.

That’s what feminism means to me.  What does it mean to you?

[i] For an interesting history of the medical invention of sex, see Alice Domurat Dreger, Hermaphrodite and the Medical Invention of Sex (Cambridge:  University of Harvard Press, 1998)

[ii] The field of epigenetics and the interaction between genes and environment expands our understanding of how we are who we are and the impact of environment on gene expression and the development of disease and other personal characteristics.

Walking the talk…

The Walkathon I’ve been working on is happening this weekend, on Saturday, June 9, 2012.  I want to thank everyone who has helped me toward my goal so far.  I haven’t looked to check to see where I’m at yet, whether I made my modest goal of $250, I wanted to make one more plea from the heart. So here goes…I’ll tell you why this particular agency pulls at me to pull at you….

When my marriage broke up, I was a very fortunate woman, sort of.  Despite all the bad stuff that was going on I had the support of family and friends to help me through the trauma of the breakup.  And it was traumatic, to have my family broken apart and my life changed, yet again, but this time so drastically as I downsized and moved into my parents basement.

Now, returning home to live with your parents has become the trend of the moment, so I guess I could take pride that I led the way over 20 years ago.  But it didn’t feel like that at the time.  I had a job and it was important to be able to continue with work without having to worry about my children.  There was lots to consider as I looked forward to my different life.  I was nowhere near where I needed to be to find a suitable apartment and the means to furnish it.  The support of my parents, in letting me stay in a safe, secure and affordable space, while accepting my situation with love, compassion and understanding, was what allowed me the opportunity to get my life back on track.  That’s a lot like what the women get who come to Phoenix Place.

They get security for themselves and their kids.  They get help to deal with the things they need help with.  When they leave, they move into a permanent home complete with everything they need to furnish a new household and with resources to help them cope with their lives.

The number of women who apply for vacancies is greater than the available space.  Their circumstances are more desperate than those I found myself in.  And they have nowhere else to go, no one else to help them.  The impact of your donation will ripple through the organization and affect all the residents who benefit from space, programming and the services that Phoenix Place provides to women in our community.  And they have a fantastic success rate, 97% of the women served have successfully rebuilt their lives and continue to live in peace and security.

I know that the economy’s bad, that times are tough for everyone, everywhere.  But know that no donation is too small and when added to others, the amount will be a lifesaver.  You can donate online here:  http://www.phoenixplace.dojiggy.com/.  If you feel uncomfortable donating online, contact me privately and I can tell you where you can forward your donation.

Thanks for taking the time to read my appeal.

Take care and enjoy the day,

Pondering on the Purpose of Remembering

It’s December 14th and the memorials for the Montreal Massacre are done for another year.  This year December 6th fell on the date my column is printed – Tuesday.  The only positive aspect of the day was that I could write about it on the day of and not before or after.

This column was just waiting to pop out, although it took some time thinking about what to say, whether there’s anything new to say, something that will gain attention, something that will make people think differently about violence against women.  Something that could trigger an aha moment in someone.  I doubt I was successful.

The readers comments are always interesting to read.  I have to steel myself to them; very few comments in the online edition are favourable.  It was a quick discovery when my first column was published, the propensity for some people to be rude.  But everyone who deals with online comments knows that.  The favourable comments I receive come to me in my personal inbox.  They are a bright spot in my day and quick to respond to.  I try to respond to everyone who takes the time to write.  But I digress.

So it was with some trepidation that I came to read the comments after my column was published on the importance of remembering.  I know that although the comments were mostly negative, it was a good column and my point did come home to several people who went out of their way to communicate the significance of the subject matter to them.  And some of these individuals happened to be men.  I appreciate their “getting it”.

Before I write a column I read around the issue to see what others have written, don’t want to be redundant, and if there’s a better idea then I’ll trumpet that one.  The spark for this year’s column came from one written by Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail.  The idea that we need to “get over” our “death cult” obsession was a sentiment that at least she had the presence of mind to hold off expressing in print until after the day had come and gone.

In light of the tragedy in Kingston it’s a sentiment just a bit premature.

I posted a link to my column on my Facebook site and received some likes and a few comments.  But one friend in particular wanted to equalize the day, and advocate for an eliminate of all violence, which, of course I support.  It’s one of those “motherhood” statements – who doesn’t want world peace?  But that’s not what this is about.

Then, this friend argues, I diminish the tragedy that befell the 14 young engineering students who are subsumed by a movement larger than them: violence against women.  Like targeting women and shooting them in cold blood because they’re women isn’t somehow a manifestation of violence against women.  But that was just a one-off, is the response.  Ummm.  No it’s not.

I don’t have to scratch the surface of my memory too hard to painfully pull from it the facts of several particularly public cases that made the front pages of newspapers all around the Golden Horseshoe.  In one case, the woman ran from her house naked and screaming.  He ran out and clawed her back in before he shot her.

Then there’s the case of the guy with the crossbow who shot his estranged wife in the chest in the middle of the day in a busy downtown Canadian city.  Killed her cold.

No.  The Montreal Massacre may have been a one-off in its size and effect, but it wasn’t a one-off in its intent: to lash out at women for the woes of the world.  It can be the only justification for such an drastic action.  Burning the toast just doesn’t seem important enough.

Not every man is abusive toward the women in his life.  To think so would be to ignore the humanity that we all share, men and women.  The stats say that those who perpetuate domestic violence are typically repeat offenders.  One man can do a lot of damage to a lot of women.  That could be behind the reluctance of many men to believe violence against women statistics:  they just refuse to believe they, or their buddies, act in any way that is violent toward women.  It hasn’t been their experience.

And of course, what guy boasts about beating his woman to another man?

Social Media Sisters

Today I had the privilege of working with the wonderful women at the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton and Area (SACHA).  We spent the day exploring the potentials of social media and how it can be used to advance the SACHA mission of eradicating violence against women (vaw).  Despite the seriousness of the work, the commitment to anti-oppressive and anti-racist process that they bring to their social justice work was inspiring and a reminder of the importance of respectful consideration in building and maintaining relationships.

We spent the morning reviewing several social media tools, not in technical detail but in theoretical practice: when to use what, what messages go where, who gets them, how to run risk management, although that’s not the way it was termed.  That’s my euphemism for the trolls who continually threaten the peaceful discourse of anti-violence work.  Trolls are those who engage with the internet with an intent to disrupt discussion by posting inflammatory comments that are meant to provoke pain and insult.  You can imagine the “easy target” that women’s groups are to trolls.  Sexual assault advocates have long been the brunt of a denying public, one that says:  she hit him first, or thinks: what did she do to deserve that?  I see it on my Facebook wall sometimes, but my friends are by no means trolling and are open to the discussion.  The pushback from many is around prevalence numbers; as “they” say:  lies, damn lies and statistics.  But changing attitudes takes a long time and is patient work.  And besides, that behaviour is against my social media policy and they would no longer be my friends.  There is room for discussion and disagreement without resorting to angry rhetoric and provocative cruelty.

There is reluctance in many organizations to release their staff to the grips of social media and the distraction it will inevitably create.  SACHA is leading the way among vaw agencies in using social media tools to educate and empower women.  Not-for-profits are coming to recognize the potential that social media has in furthering their social justice goals.  There’s a brave new world before us, that’s for sure.

Lunch was at the YWCA’s United Buff-Way and Silent Auction held in the cafe at the downtown location on McNab St.  October and November are busy times for non-profits in the Hamilton area as they enter the United Way fundraising season with potluck dinners, silent auctions and whatever other innovative ways they can think of to assist in achieving this year’s target goal.  It was a delicious lunch buffet and I was stuffed with salads and pizza and meatballs and risotto and so much more, especially the post-lunch pastries.  mmmmmm.

After lunch we went to work on figuring out how to best operationalize their knowledge to work toward the fulfillment of their mission.  I love working with people, watching them communicate collaboratively, think creatively.  There’s a spark in the air with the excitement of true engagement.  We were so fortunate as to have access to a window that could be opened from time to time to let the cool air waft through the room.  The view was of the walled garden of the McQuesten House across the street.

The method of facilitation that we used is called the Technology of Participation method, or ToP.  I went through their Facilitator program last year and have put my skills to good use so far working with groups at the university and in the violence against women community.

It was a great afternoon, with lots of good ideas tossed around and put up on the wall, sorted into shapes that evolved into the beginnings of a plan.  The women were fun to work with and committed to the process.  I look forward to seeing how they move forward with their ideas.  No doubt about it, I’ll share their progress here.

Change can be tough, even when it’s welcome and anticipated change.  Kudos to SACHA for boldly going where few dare to go.  Yet.

And I Heard the Door Open From Below….

This is part 2 of the blog post:  “Staying Alive and Following Your Dreams”


The other day I posted about Janice Butler and her “It’s a success” strategy for, you guessed it, success.  Today, I’ll recount the rest of the afternoon….

Location:  The Lakeview, Hamilton, Ontario

Purpose:  Professional development day.

Just before we broke for lunch we had a visit from Dr. Cooper who works in the Centre for Student Development.  He’s a psychologist specializing in addiction and gambling.  He’s your typical college psychologist, Birkenstocks, cords, untucked shirt, long hair, funny.  He took us through a relaxation exercise that I just wasn’t into.  He was really good at it; I peeped through my eyes and looked around the room, everyone seemed right relaxed.  I was, at first, for about 10 minutes, then I started getting antsy and fidgety in my seat.  He was going just too slow.  I needed to be relaxed faster.  When I heard the door open downstairs and footfalls echoing up through the stairway I thought, that must be her, and then for sure the session was over for me.  But I sat there and waited before I jumped up and went over to introduce and impress myself in her future only to get her name wrong in the process.  Can you imagine, I called her Mona Raynard?  Of course that would happen to me, the opportunity to be memorable for the tarnish rather than the polish.

She sat with us at our table during lunch.  And good thing there were other people or I would have totally monopolized her time with questions, questions, questions.  Mostly about writing, getting published, women’s issues and, of course, the perks of editing a women’s lifestyle magazine.  But my mother taught me to share and I refrained from taking over the talk.  It was more an opportunity to talk a bit about us, who we are and what we do.

After lunch Rona stepped up to the front of room to talk.  Slim and petite, she used an ipad for her presentation so she could free herself from the podium.  She was dressed in black pants with a black, white and grey flecked wool jacket, cropped at the waist. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.  But I was interested in what she was wearing.  Are you kidding?).  I was going to ask her the label and engage her in fashion talk, but that’s another blog.

She  stated right off the top that self-care is not selfish.  That’s a message that the women in the room know well and that we tell to those around us, but we often fail to take our own good advice.  It was good to be reminded.

As I listened to her recount her life and work  experiences, questions formed in my mind.  How do you adjust after life in the fast lane to not driving at all?  How do we relax enough to allow renewal when we’re so busy running from one aspect of our lives to another?  We are so caught up in our professional identities that provide us with real-world value in terms of jobs and occupations and life and death decision-making, that when we no longer are in those positions, we have no idea who we are or what makes us happy.  Couple that with the reality that retirement in the traditional sense is now considered a career transition as we prepare for longer periods in the workforce than our parents did.

It’s a brave new world for women in the workforce, with retirement plans contingent on lifetime earnings which run 60% of what men make. Older single women, living in poverty, longer and with more morbid health conditions than men, or serving as their partners caregiver, the future for the elderly woman can be a bleak one.  Best to keep opportunities, techniques and tactics that encourage renewal, of mind, soul and body.

Using her personal experience with change and depression, Rona mapped out the highs awarded by career success as well as the lows of being away from it that swung her into a debilitating depression and her subsequent success at the helm of Chatelaine.

Her description of the Chatelaine work-world was captivating. The excitement, the challenges, the problems to solve, the importance to experience.  When she spoke about the connection she made to the women who wrote in to comment about stories in the magazine, especially her appeasement of Mrs. Outrage, I felt a similar connection.  I can do that.  But I think I can do anything.  Don’t you know I’m Wonder Woman?  The truth is, I can barely maintain my blog empire never mind create a national women’s magazine every month.

I took notes.

As I said, Rona’s talk focused on renewal, how does it happen, why is it necessary, how do we benefit from it, where to find it.  She noted that for her, as for many of us, “the ultimate act of renewal is to move on”, from a job, a relationship, a friendship etc.  I know a few women who are in that process right now.  Scary, but exhilarating at the same time.  It’s in those times of renewal that we surprise ourselves by discovering new interests, new skills, new people, new ways of being.

Rona’s advice on managing renewal:

  • Stay fit
  • Remember to be grateful
  • Stay inspired

In response to a question about how to support someone who is depressed and suicidal, she offered the following words of wisdom:

  • be there
  • ask how they are
  • bring food
  • help with the kids
  • understand at work
  • listen
  • do unto others

I particularly like the last one.

After she left Chatelaine, Rona wrote a book, a memoir about her relationship with her mother, Fredelle Maynard, a Radcliffe-trained academic.

A quotation from the book’s dust jacket sums up nicely the significance of mothers:

A woman’s identity is forged in her relationship with her mother, whether close and tender or fraught with conflict.

I’d say I agree with that, speaking from my experience with my own mother, who taught me the important life lessons like sharing, the value of relationships, trust, and reciprocity, love, understanding and acceptance.

Her mother, Fredelle Maynard, authored the book Raisins and Almonds, which I was first introduced to in grad school studying immigration history.  Her book is a collection of finely crafted stories drawn from her experiences growing up on the Canadian prairies, the daughter of a devoted father, a Jewish girl in a land of often unkind gentiles, a 20th-century, educated, modern woman.  I checked it out of the library on the way home from work yesterday.  I’m looking forward to reading it again, as a prelude to reading Rona’s memoir of her relationship with her mother.

Rona gives workshops on memoir writing.  She brought copies of her book, one of which I walked away with.  I paid for it first, of course.  That’s 2 books in one week, directly from the hands of the authors (dedicated and signed!).

Do I sound like a groupie?

Staying Alive and Following Dreams

This is part one of a two-part post.  It was getting too long so I cut it in half.  Part two will come tomorrow.


I work at the best place.

The director of our department hosted a professional development day earlier this week.  Our director believes that it’s important to provide opportunities for staff to gather outside of the workplace, to engage their minds in thinking of the many possibilities in life rather than of the restrictions that often guide us in our daily dealings.  Our director rocks, to be truthful.  She’s got a reputation of pure gold all across the organization and it’s richly deserved and worn well.  This year the event was held at The Lakeview on the shores of beautiful Lake Ontario in Hamilton.

I was excited because I found out a couple of days earlier that Rona Maynard, ex-editor at Chatelaine magazine would be our afternoon speaker.  She left the masthead of the magazine back in 2004 when, as she said to us, she lost the desire for the problems at Chatelaine.  Now, as an aspiring writer and a avid reader of Chatelaine – I even wrote a paper on the magazine for one of my university courses – I looked up to Rona Maynard.  She sat in the top job in Canada for women’s magazines, a job I used to dream of having when I had those dreams.  Her departure left the magazine in a turmoil in terms of editorial leadership.

Chatelaine sent me my first rejection letter from a woman’s magazine and I’ve never been published there.  I went for the best when I pitched:  The Atlantic, Walrus, New Yorker, Chatelaine.  Only the best rejection letters for me.  I met once with their health editor when I worked at a women’s health resource office years and years ago.  I was all eager and looking for a mentor; she was looking for story ideas.   I gave her one and we never talked again.  She didn’t seem too interested in it at the time but I later found evidence she pursued it.  I think my take would have been a bit different, but I’m glad she picked it up. Welcome to the sisterhood.

Nevertheless, needless to say, I was excited about the day.

We began at 9:00 with a short warm-up activity, to get us energized.  It was a game of “who’s got …. in her purse”.  Now, we number almost 100 and the men are in the <5% range and I don’t think any of them brought their purse, but they did have backpacks and briefcases so no one was left out.  I carry almost nothing with me but the barest I need: wallet, notebook, change purse, electronics (phone, ipod, Livescribe, camera, ear buds, memory stick) and keys.  Oh – and lipstick (Deep Violet).  Brand new.  Bought it the other day.  The only thing I could get my hands on quick was my memory stick – which to me seemed too common to call out so I was content to watch the others.  Until I heard the words “memory stick” and my hand shot straight up into the air “ME” I yelled out while my other hand furiously sought it out of the pocket in the bag.  Woo hoo, I won – second comer – but I won. Lipgloss. I guess that’s my measure of this week’s luck gone – best save the lottery money for next week.

The morning speaker was Janice Butler, who runs Creative Breeze Training in New Brunswick.  She was perfect for the morning, a bundle of energy dancing to the music and spreading positive messages:  we are born to be alive, the importance of dreams and the necessity to act on them.

She asked us to think back to a time when we were kids and what it was that we spent hours doing, when time flew by we were so engaged in the moment.  For me it was making newspapers, cutting up other pictures, creating headlines.  I only wrote the front page, but I remember it so vividly.  That and reading.  The reading was constant, unstoppable, like breathing.  Still is.  She said to reconnect with it, somehow find a way to incorporate it into your life; you will be surprised at how it can carry you to new, dream-realizing experiences.

Janice uses a visual board to keep her dreams before her eyes and suggested that we do too.  A visual board is a large poster board containing images of aspects of your dream and you in them.  She used her example of her dream to go on the Ellen Degeneres show and she showed us a picture she used of Ellen interviewing a guest only Janice put her head on the guest’s body.  Keeping your dream at the forefront of your mind will inspire you to act on it in many tiny ways and it will inform your thinking about future opportunities.  Well, Janice hasn’t yet made it to the Ellen Degeneres Show, but she was invited as a guest on a local New Brunswick talk show similar to Ellen’s.  One step closer every day.

Janice also shared with us the example of her sister and brother-in-law who had a dream to visit Tuscany.  Teamwork brought them to a Quebec television show that offered people the chance to win their dreams if they satisfactorily met the challenge presented.  Their challenge was to correctly identify, by tune, the 104 symphonies of Hayden.  None of them were familiar with Hayden, never mind his symphonies.  But positive messaging (It’s a success!) and teamwork served them well.  They attacked the problem together and when the challenge came, and Janice had to answer for her team, don’t you know she won!

Isn’t that amazing, how something they thought was impossible became possible through teamwork and positive thinking.

I’ll leave it here and relate my meeting with Rona tomorrow.

Until then – remember:  it’s a success – whatever it is….

International Women’s Day, 2011

Happy International Women’s Day everyone!

This year marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD).  I can hear the groan growing among some readers, mostly male, but some women too, who think the day a sexist celebration of all things women.

When’s International Men’s Day? I came across this question in my reading this past week.  Of course.  It’s such an original comeback.  There are days named in honour of male historical figures:  George Washington, Martin Luther King, and Louis Riel come to mind.  Labour day was largely won by male unionists (who do not have a history of welcoming women into their working midst).  And then there’s Christmas and Easter.  Need I say more?

So yeah, International Women’s Day, founded when women couldn’t vote and had limited access to education and employment.  Yet despite such restrictions, we still found something to celebrate and much more for which to be hopeful.

It’s difficult for many women in the western world to comprehend the restrictions that once ruled our lives not because of what we could or couldn’t do, but just because we were women.  We just have to look around the world to other locales to see how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go.

And we have much, much further to go.

For many women around the world, equality is a word that holds little meaning in their lives.  The birth of a boy baby is still an occasion of celebration while a baby girl requires an apology.  The over-supply of men in China is a direct result of the privilege that boy babies enjoy.  Not so much fun when those babies grow into men and they want a woman to create a family with and there’s not enough women to go around.  That’s one way, I suppose, of increasing the value of women, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening.  Instead, women are being brought in from other asian cultures, and racism is added to sexism as Korean or Vietnamese women are accorded secondary status as non-Chinese in a Chinese world.

We in the western world enjoy the highest rates of survival in terms of childbirth.  Having a baby in Canada is a relatively safe procedure.  We have midwives and ob/gyns as well as family docs as part of the health care team.  In many parts of the world, women still suffer in childbirth, with death and crippling morbidity the result of unsanitary conditions, poor prenatal care, and being miles and miles away from the nearest medical facility.  Obstetric fistula is endemic in some African countries, Yemen, Sudan etc. These women become pariahs their communities, shunned as outcasts.  And of course, sadly, thousands of women continue to die giving life.

I’m not going to go into the multiple and various ways in which women, everywhere, still experience discrimination and violence.  Just pick up a newspaper – or follow my Facebook wall.  Lest we forget.

But.  This is supposed to be a day of celebration of how far we’ve come.  Maybe it’s hardwired or environmentally sparked, but we women know how to throw a party.  There are educational events, movie screenings, breakfast, lunch and dinner parties, and some dancing even!  All week long.

Celebrations for IWD are organized for the whole week.  The events in Hamilton can be found here.  The IWD website has an event finder that shows events around the world.  The UK has the highest number of IWD events registered (452), of the UK, Canada, the US and Australia.  India has 59.  Just a demonstration of how popular the day has become and to illustrate the international solidarity that women share.

So – get out there and celebrate the day, everyday.


A Day Not to Forget

December 6 marks the day that changed the lives of many people in Canada and an important day in the sisterhood.

On that day, a man stormed an engineering classroom at l’Ecole Polytechnique and singled out the female students for execution.  In late-2oth century Canada.  It was, and remains to be, a chilling reminder that despite the advances women have made in gaining access to education and increasing their participation in the workplace, it is surprisingly easy for some men to nurture a hatred for women in our civilized, westernized, Canadian culture.

The Montreal Massacre prompted a reexamination of who we are; it was so horrific no one could excuse it away except by extreme mental distress, but we all came face-to-face with the elephant in the room, the misogynist monster who picked up on enough societal cues that condoned his hatred.  His letter said it all.

A few years after the Massacre, I was teaching in a women’s studies class when the vulnerability of who we are (women) and what we’re doing (learning) really hit home.  And I’m a white, educated woman who lives in a civilized society with laws that protect my public participation and a judiciary that will uphold those laws and a police force to enforce them.  But that didn’t seem to provide much comfort, really.

I can only imagine the level of danger that women face in places like Afghanistan (to pick an obvious example) and Yemen, or Sudan, where the control of woman and her behaviour is paramount to patriarchal rule.  We’ve heard of the acid attacks and the mass rapes that continue to subject women to violence just because she is a woman, of the barbaric punishment meted out to women who transgress rigid codes of sexual conduct.

Attitudes that underpin male control are still with us, everywhere, to greater or lesser degrees, despite legislation and numerous education campaigns across the country and around the world.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.  This year is the 21st.  We will continue to mark and remember each one as the years go by.  One day it may happen that the idea seems ludicrous to our children’s children, that a person would think such thoughts, thoughts fueled by misogyny and hatred that could drive the shooter to do what he did.

Not yet, though.

“Don’t be envious, get your own life”

The whole “other woman” thing has captured my attention lately.  I suppose it began with Tiger Woods and the revelations that surfaced concerning his long list of illicit lovers, unknown to his loving wife.  Then Jesse James ponied up the truth on his backroom dealings behind the back of Sandra Bullock, his devoted wife.  Such high profile cases of infidelity, so heartbreakingly private to the one betrayed, splashed on tabloid covers and talked about by late night hosts; I shake my head in wonder.

It’s not like these men can hide who they are; they are both public figures with lives reported on in the media.  It’s not like either of them could hide that they were married.  The women who Tiger and Jesse bedded knew of “the wife’, and either didn’t care or hoped to supplant her.  Competition at it’s very best.  Or is it its worst?

What gives?

While browsing in the bookstore a few weeks ago, I found Tripping the Prom Queen (2006) by Susan Shapiro Barash, who conducted extensive personal interviews of American women in order to uncover the “truth about women and rivalry”.

The women that Barash interviewed all came to the encounter with stories of betrayal and bad behaviour by other women.  I had to remind myself of that as she told tale after tale of women behaving badly to each other, due largely to unrecognized and out-of-control competition that coloured each and every activity undertaken by women, with women.  Being a wife, daughter, sister, mother, worker, boss; competing over husbands, children, family status, jobs, clothes, friends, whatever they can find to fight over.  It got to a point where I had to put it down for a couple of days.  The stories from childhood, I can understand, sort of.  I was picked on by older girls and my teen years were treacherous, so I believe these things happen.

But at some point it all stopped, or rather, slowed down, maybe went underground, I suppose.  For the most part the women I have worked with have been women I’ve been proud to call colleagues; women who don’t engage in malicious gossip, but who share information and pass along hard-earned advice.  Not everyone, of course.  But the women who have behaved badly in my adult life number maybe on one hand, and for the last 20 years, I’ve worked in a largely female work environment.  So that’s pretty good, eh?

I have lost close friends, those with whom I spent my formative teenage years.  That has been sad because judging by the comfort that I feel with those old friends I still see, I have lost dearly.

What I found interesting in the stories told by the women interviewed was how many of them that felt put upon because they were pretty.  I’m not sure if that was corroborated, that is, the fact that they were pretty; I only know they thought so.  So is it jealousy on the part of plain Jane, or arrogance on the part of conceited Cathy? (not you, Cathy). Isn’t that the classic comeback – oh, she’s jealous because you’re so pretty.  Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, the ad for shiny hair shampoo said.

It was the stories of bad behaviour coming from women in their 50s that were truly shocking and I wondered what a sheltered existence I must lead.  Thankfully.  But maybe there’s something else at work.

I thank the women’s movement for creating conversations that try to move us beyond the competition that has been dividing us for millennia.  Competition has carried over into the feminist arena also; after all, women are human, too.  You can see it in the competition for the term “feminist”: who gets to be one, who wants to be one, what it means.  However, the spirit of collaboration and cooperation among women is a difficult one to quell and there is value to be had in listening to the stories of others and learning from what they consider mistakes.

So Barash has a few suggestions to those who find themselves caught in the green-eyed grip of sisterly competition:

  • Acknowledge it – competition exists within us all.  Recognizing what it feels like is the first step in putting it in its place
  • Find an acceptable outlet
  • Recognize its many manifestations; experience jealously, don’t fear it, don’t blame yourself and get beyond it
  • Use it as motivation for yourself; “Don’t get envious, get your own life” said the bowling team captain.
  • Develop a realistic concept of friendship, one that allows you to cherish your friends’ diversities and similarities
  • Open communication is important

Despite the fact that at times I felt like I needed a shower while reading some of the more egregious tales of bad behaviour, I learned a lot about myself while I reflected on those episodes in my life where I may not have been the best of friends to someone who thinks I was.

Ah well, as Scarlet would say, tomorrow is another day.