•  Culture, Equality

The world is different today.

Last night, for the first time, a woman accepted a major party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. (I know you all know this. I just wanted to say it again, because it qualifies as a genuine, 100% Big Deal. I only wish my mom had been here to see it.)

One of the most powerful moments of the evening came when Hillz and Chelsea embraced after Chelsea had introduced her mother. The glance that passed between them contained not just love—although there was obviously plenty of that (and how nice to see it on a convention stage, for a change)—but all the elements of what I have come to call the Knowing Look. That’s the one that women give each other that says, I understand. I understand what it’s like to be the smartest person in the class, and the least popular. I understand what it’s like to respond to unwanted attention with humor, because girls don’t get angry. I understand what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship and to be afraid to tell anyone. I understand what it’s like to like math, or science, and be told that’s not what girls do. I understand what it’s like to be so tired cleaning houses all day for other people that you fall asleep standing up on the subway. I understand what it’s like to have your PhD advisor, your boss, your mentor demand sexual favors in exchange for a recommendation. I understand what it’s like to work in an office where women’s clothes, hair, makeup, bodies are openly discussed, dissected, disrespected. I understand what it’s like to be left holding the bag, the debt, the children. I understand what it’s like to be barraged by idealized, retouched, Photoshopped images of women on the Internet 24/7/365 and feel like you have to measure up and you never will. I understand what it’s like not to be able to find toys for girls that aren’t pink. I understand what it’s like to be paid less than the men in your company and to have to suck it up because you need that job. I understand what it’s like to be date raped. I understand what it’s like to have three part-time jobs so you can support your two children as a single mother.

I understand how far we’ve come to be standing on this stage, tonight, mother and daughter, two women for once not in the service of men but in the service of the common good.

Earlier in the evening, I heard a caller on Brian Lehrer’s national call-in show say that he didn’t understand “the ballyhoo” over Hillary’s nomination. Behind the bravado in his voice, I heard fear. Fear that a woman might do the job as well as a man. Fear that he might lose the power to cajole, to control, to dominate. Well, to all the men out there who are threatened by Hillary Clinton because she’s brilliant and kind, strong and compassionate, a leader and an organizer of family movie night (obviously, supremely equipped to be the first multi-tasker-in-chief): She is so good at all these things because you made her that way. You made all of us that way. When we had to work our one, two, or three jobs and organize dinner every night, coordinate child care, serve as COO, CFO, CIO and CTO of the household, arrange the doctor’s visits and the birthday presents and the holiday cards and the travel arrangements and the veterinary care and the care for elderly parents (yours and ours), we had no choice but to become good at All The Things and, at the same time, to look inside ourselves and find the strength to carry on despite all the crap you put us through, whether you meant to, or not. We became not just able to function on missed meals, no exercise, little sleep, no sleep, but, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “stronger at the broken places.” Or, more to the point—in the words of Mrs. Carter—“Smart enough to make these millions/Strong enough to bear the children/Then get back to bidness.”

Hear me, men of America: This nomination is not payback. We are not seeking revenge, or reparations. We are not putting you on trial for your past conduct. We just want someone in the White House who is capable of the Knowing Look and who might be able to get us a glass of wine and a few hours of time off (instead of what we’re told is time off, which is usually taken up with other people’s needs). We, all of us who support Hillary—little girls, young women, and older women like me—want her to be president because she is exactly like us. Showing up every day, doing the best she can, despite everything, all the time. In these United States, that’s something to celebrate. Balloons and all.

Now, back to bidness.

 •  Annoyances, Equality, Manners

Nobody likes the smart girl.

Recently, I had conversations about The Election with two friends of mine—one male, one female, both educated, intelligent people with whom I enjoy a little verbal political sparring from time to time. I came away fairly unsettled. F1 and F2, you see, don’t know each other, and are very different demographically, socially, and politically—and yet they used virtually identical language to contrast their mistrust of Hillary Clinton with their appreciation for Donald Trump. Both cited Clinton’s support of her husband after his affair with a younger woman was revealed as reason to distrust her; at the same time, both were dismissive of the New York Times’ recent investigation of Donald Trump’s behavior toward women, saying in no uncertain terms that the story had been manipulated to smear the candidate. (F2 [sadly, the woman] went so far as to say that it “wasn’t Trump’s fault that he was rich” and that women were “throwing themselves at him.”) My friends see no irony in chiding one candidate for choosing to stay in a marriage compromised by bad behavior—surely, a private decision? —and chiding the media for calling another out because he asked a young model he had just met to change into a revealing bikini and then paraded her around at a party as though he owned not just the bikini but the body inside it.

It’s been getting pretty clear for a while now that the last eight years have largely been about how much America really hates Black people, and I’m worried that the next eight years are going to be about how much we really hate women. This isn’t just idle, middle-of-the-night musing; the facts are grim. The gender pay gap is widening at the lower and higher ends of corporate America. Big men on campuses east and west assault women with seemingly little danger to their own careers. Politicians speak on the national stage of “legitimate rape.” Women’s healthcare—and I don’t just mean access to abortion—is under attack at a level unprecedented in our history. America remains the only developed nation without mandatory funded parental leave. On the flip side of that equation, child care is abysmally expensive and often unsafe. And while well-meaning icons like Sheryl Sandberg urge us to lean in, there are plenty of women in this country whose shaky employment status isn’t conducive to that kind of self-promotion (but is conducive to all kinds of sexual harassment, which we don’t hear about because those women are too busy keeping their jobs to blow the whistle on their bosses and co-workers). So, not such a different world from the one twenty-five years ago in which Donald Trump felt free to show off the attributes of his newest “Trump girl.”

But never mind all of that—at least for the moment. Let’s agree on the idea that, if it doesn’t hate women, America doesn’t like them all that much. If you don’t believe that (really? Dig a little deeper and then tell me I’m crazy), there’s at least ample evidence that America doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. Case in point: my friends are hardly alone in their opinions. And I’m pretty sure that all the solutions to the much-vaunted likeability dilemma put forward by well-meaning people like David Brooks are doomed to fail. Because here it is, people: The ugly truth of American life—which you know if you’re a woman, you’re intelligent, and you’ve ever been jeered at on a kindergarten playground, whispered about in a sixth-grade classroom, studiously ignored at a high school dance, or offered temporary popularity in exchange for clandestine cheating in college—is that nobody likes the smart girl.

So now, assuming that the ever-shriller Bernie Sanders actually sits down and shuts up at some point (one can hope, no?), and we’re in a two-candidate race (apologies to Gary Johnson and the 47% of Americans apparently looking for a third-party solution), what? Do we look forward to five more months of helpful hints for Hillary, contrasted with “fair and balanced” coverage of Donald Trump’s behavior? More misogyny disguised as political commentary? It would be nice if at some point we could get around to some actual substantive policy discussions—you know, of the type one might expect as two people battle to win the privilege of taking care of the daily lives of more than 300 million people. But I’m not hopeful. Apparently, as a nation, we are still much more interested in commoditizing women than in actually getting to know them, which means that Hillary will remain the smart girl for the rest of the campaign and thus will continue to be deemed (a) unpopular and (b) unqualified to be President, because in her earlier years she was more interested in going undercover in racist school districts to improve educational opportunities for minority kids than she was in developing her golf game.

Getting back to my friends: Even if it disgusts me (and it does), I understand the appeal of Donald Trump. He represents that shiny, rich, safe, and above all, white America that so many people already miss as they look nine years down the road to a future in which their kids won’t do any better than they did and in which they will be, for the first time, the minority. But Hillary Clinton represents a better America—an America that is messy, imperfect, sometimes two-steps-forward-one-step-back, and nevertheless trying to find its way to a cautious equilibrium where everyone has at least a decent chance at a decent life. Donald Trump’s America, meanwhile, just wants the smart girl to shut up, do its homework, and give it a blow job.

I said to my husband recently that the only good thing to come out of this election cycle so far is that Donald Trump has reminded me that I’m not just a fellow smart girl, but a feminist. And so, over the next five months, I’m going to be working hard to remind all the F2s out there that this election will probably turn on them—and that if they stay home, there’s at least a fair chance (pace the intelligentsia, who assured us that the Donald wouldn’t get this far) that Really Bad Things will happen. Look, maybe Madeline Albright went a little too far when she said there was a “special place in hell” for women who don’t support other women. But in this election, I think she might just be right. I can only hope that hell isn’t America on November 9.

 •  Annoyances, Culture, Equality

There and here.

London has a new mayor, and the phenomenally accomplished Sadiq Khan—with a biography any good socialist would cheerfully give his or her left arm for—has been receiving congratulations from future colleagues worldwide on his victory in the election, which boasted the highest turnout ever for a mayoral contest. The mayor of Paris swoons over his “humanism” and “progressiveness.” Jakarta’s governor calls his victory an “inspiring story of democracy, merit, and tolerance.” A breathless tweet from -H herself extols Khan’s virtues as a “champion of workers’ rights and human rights.” Even the sister of his challenger, Zac Goldsmith, calls his victory “a great example to young Muslims.” This son of a Pakistani bus driver, who grew up on a council estate, avoided a rough crowd at school, developed a passion for education, politics, and equality, and keeps it real by taking out the trash and putting his two daughters to bed, is the darling of those who would unify a splintered electorate everywhere. Except, presumably, that other self-proclaimed great unifier, Donald Trump, who as of this writing remains undecided as to whether Khan would be allowed into the U.S. if he were victorious in the Presidential stakes.

These days in politics, you can either be a lover or a hater. There is no in between. Khan is a lover—a lover who because of his heritage and his looks would likely be targeted for suspicion in any number of cities in the United States of today. He insists, in his first interview with Time as Lord Mayor, that being British, Western and Muslim is not a contradiction; that his election symbolizes the spirit of Londoners who “respect, embrace, celebrate” their diversity; and that “it’s really important” that he “use his experiences to defeat radicalization and extremism.” He’s vocal on the need for good role models for young British Muslims today, so that when presented with the sometimes alluring prospect of fighting for ISIS, they can “just say no.” He’s not shy about his convictions and he’s willing to stand up for his beliefs, even when that puts him in danger—a fatwa was issued against him thanks to his support for gay marriage. Perhaps most importantly, he believes that his election means that “actually there is no clash of civilization between Islam and the West.”

I’ve been trying for a day now to reconcile Khan’s ascendancy to a position that puts him in charge of the daily lives of nearly 15 million people with the irrational hatred of Muslims in the U.S. that forces innocent travelers off planes; earns people death threats because of the color of their skin; and constrains the devout to abandon plans to build places of worship. This isn’t saying that there’s no anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.K.—there’s plenty, much of it in evidence during this election. Zac Goldsmith ran a campaign The Guardian called “soaked in racism”—ironic and sad, given his own not-exactly-mainstream-British heritage. But somehow the innate generosity of spirit and openness of mind that has always characterized the England we like to imagine, the England of Downton Abbey, triumphed—putting Khan and, by association, the entire nation on the right side of history. Would that I were certain the same sterling qualities of character would suddenly emerge over the next few months in our own political discourse.

It seems so, well, unfair that the often tortured relationship Britain has with its former colonies has come to this—to the seemingly inexorable rise to power of the son of an immigrant from one of those colonies—when we in our own country spend our time, when we’re not vilifying or murdering the descendants of people we used to buy and sell, complaining about those nasty immigrants who are taking all of our jobs away, threatening our families, and destroying our society. And indeed, it is a slap in the face to the much-ballyhooed idea of American democracy that a man named Khan now holds one of the highest political offices in the U.K. when here, he would have trouble getting ahead these days unless the middle letters of his last name were reversed. The big-hearted and hopeful America of the 1950s and 1960s, the America that marched steadily and compassionately toward progress of every kind, has disappeared into a vortex of debt, dissension, and disgust—a place where kindness and decency no longer have any real currency, and division is the order of the day. Democracy has room for every kind of attitude, of course, and we have seen glimpses of this America before. But today, thanks to the legacy of a generation’s worth of indiscriminate, profligate greed, we have more division than ever. Which means more hatred, and then more division, on and on, the ouroboros busily eating its own tail until someone cuts off its head. The dirty little secret of America—which, if things go the wrong way this November, will not be so secret any more—is that hatred has become not just the overriding tone of our discourse and the raison d’etre for much of our popular culture, but our guiding national principle. “Haters gonna hate,” in the sunnily styled vocals of our foremost pop diva. And how. Too bad we can’t just shake it off.

 •  Culture, Equality, Morals

Let’s all get married.

It’s almost June, and therefore full-on Wedding Season. I am and have always been a huge wedding junkie, and now, thanks to the miracle of the interwebs, I am able—despite not having received a single wedding invitation for this year (they do tend to drop off with age)—to follow the wedding fortunes of people I’ve never even met. Therefore, I’m thrilled to report that a couple of very nice people whom I don’t know (but would like to) are getting married. The estimable Lisa Congdon is a little farther along in the process than Renaissance Man Daniel Kanter, but—happily—they are equally enthusiastic about their nuptials. Both Lisa and Daniel have written recently and touchingly about their journeys toward marriage (journeys that, in the slow realization that they didn’t have to spend their lives alone, mirrored my own). Both have, despite considerable odds both internal and external, found their soul mates and are prepared to throw in their lot with them, now and forever. Both believe in the transformative power of love, and in the coming together of two people to create and nurture something bigger than the sum of their two parts. Oh, and both are gay.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am a somewhat aggressively vocal supporter of gay marriage—of marriage in general, in fact. It seems to me that any two people who are crazy enough to take that kind of a chance on love, in an age when pretty much nothing is certain, deserve all the support we can give them. It has long angered me that, in an era where we have progressed so much in so many ways, we still have to put any sort of qualifier before the word ‘marriage.’ ‘Gay marriage’ shouldn’t have to be. ‘Marriage’ ought to be—ought to be able to be—good enough for everybody.

Why, despite the best efforts of pretty much everyone I know, are so many people still so scared of broadening the reach of this state-sanctioned institution? I guess rather than just ridiculing the arguments, I should address them (call me crazy, but heck, let’s just go for it). Let’s see. First off, there’s ‘gay marriage will corrupt children.’ Funny, none of the children I know who are growing up with two moms or two dads seem to know they’re being corrupted. They do seem to know they’re loved and wanted, though…sometimes more than you’d think. One of my closest friends bravely adopted his partner’s niece a while back (she had been raised up until then by her grandparents, but evolving family circumstances forced a reconsideration), forming for the couple an instant family; someone I know recently began fostering and plans to adopt, with her wife, two siblings deemed hard to place because of their birth mother’s drug addiction; another friend and her wife have two children of their own by the same sperm donor, both lovingly conceived, lovingly (if painfully) birthed, and superbly well-adjusted (which is to say, as nutty as most kids). The story of how these people came to be parents are, for the most part, not typical in the straight community. They are in the gay community. Maybe this is why all the gay people I know with kids are not just good parents, but exceptionally aware and committed parents—they have to work so much harder than most straight people to have kids in the first place and thus are, perhaps, better apprised of what they’re getting themselves into.

How about the ‘gay marriage will corrupt traditional marriage’ argument? Well, I’m on my second marriage, and through both, I’ve had gay friends with life partners (and now, sometimes, spouses). I am here to tell you that I have never once felt that either of my marriages was under siege by my gay partnered or married friends. (One was under siege thanks to extremely bad behavior, but that was an internal struggle best left out of this discussion.) Just how ludicrous is the ‘corruption of marriage’ argument? Well, doesn’t this whole paragraph look really stupid? Yeah. I think so, too.

So, without delving into any of the other objections to ‘gay marriage,’ how do we get to that blissful state of ‘marriage?’ One way is to make ‘gay marriage’ more visible, more ‘normal,’ and, thus, more widely accepted. We have achieved that to a certain extent, thanks to a cadre of smart, strong, committed couples who have braved ridicule, discrimination, and even death threats to perpetuate the institution of marriage all across America. Because of them, our neighborhoods are blossoming with more and more young families…some gay, some not, all of them reflecting the norms of today. And also because of them, and the courageous actions of some of our legislators and opinion-makers, some of our states have even enacted sensible, pro-marriage laws (imagine!). The tide of public opinion on this topic seems, finally, to be turning. I cannot imagine Lisa and Daniel having been able to write any posts about their marriages twenty years ago—at least, not without the hateful, nasty comments outweighing the gushy, pro-love ones. Today, their posts just seem, well…normal.

Another way to get to past ‘gay marriage’ to ‘marriage’ is, of course, with a grand gesture by the Supremes. I favor (if you know me, you know that’s putting it mildly) this approach. I want gay marriage to have its very own Loving v. Virginia. And why not? When it comes to inequality and discrimination, I am not a proponent of the ‘slow and steady wins the race’ approach. No, I want certainty, a gavel, and doors slamming shut in the face of discrimination all over America. I want all the narrow-minded, fearful, religiously misguided, anti-marriage idiots out there to know that, while they might still be able to spew their uninformed hateful crap all over the interwebs, Twitter, and talk radio, their actions are no longer in any way permitted, condoned, or sanctioned by any legal entity or governmental agency of the United States. I want law, people. Equality under the law is unambiguous. And that’s why I lean this way.

When the spouse and I got married, the amazing Ann Kansfield (one of four clergy officiating; long story, but 11 is louder!) began her part of the service by saying she’d been asked to perform the ‘marriage equality’ portion of our wedding. She got a huge laugh, and then proceeded with something she said would be unexpected—and it was, because (let’s face it) nobody expected a lesbian minister to be ‘traditional:’ A simple, heartfelt, and yes, religious (!!!) blessing of our rings. For me, that served as a huge reminder of what marriage equality is all about: The freedom for everyone to engage in the most traditional of ceremonies, if they so choose. Because whether a couple gets married in a barn, in a synagogue, in a museum, or at City Hall, each marriage ceremony is, at bottom, the same. Each is about nothing more, and nothing less, than two people making a mutual promise to cling together in the face of what are, often, enormous odds to build a life, a home, and a family. If that isn’t something to celebrate, something to encourage, and something to fight for, I don’t know what is.

So. Less hatred. More love. More weddings, I hope, soon. In the meantime, I leave you with the words of our friend Doug (another of the four clergy officiating at our wedding): “If we have waited a long time for this day, how long have they waited?” He was right; we did wait a long time. Not as long as some, though. So, to Lisa, Daniel, their fiancée and fiancé, and all the other soon-to-be-married couples out there, congratulations. And to all the other couples out there waiting—including some who have been waiting forty years or more—please don’t give up. I believe in you.

 •  Culture, Equality

Jolie ain’t just pretty.

I was 25 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer—and so, at a time when most young women are more concerned with their breasts as a source of pleasure than anything else, I began to worry that mine would kill me someday. I had my baseline mammogram soon after my mother’s cancer surgery (there’s probably some irony there, but I’m not looking for it), and have had one faithfully every year since, which means that this year marked the twenty-fifth time I’ve had my breasts squeezed painfully between X-ray plates by a bored radiology technician. I get my mammograms done at Rosetta Radiology in New York, a wonderful facility that tries to put some dignity back into the practice. And it was there, last year, that a caring doctor reminded me once again that I really should be tested for BRCA1.

Cancer is almost a joke in my family. With us, it’s not so much a matter of if, but when. Among the relatives who’ve had cancers which convey a hereditary risk, I count my mother; my father; both grandmothers; my grandfather; my aunt; an uncle; the list goes on. As to other risks for breast cancer, I tick almost all the boxes (large-breasted; dense-breasted; early menstruation; no children; cystic; and so forth). Moreover, I am at least 50% Ashkenazi Jewish (and my mother always had suspicions about her grandfather which, if true, would convey to me a double whammy of genetic idiosyncrasy). Prudence and my Virgo nature, therefore, would suggest that I really should be tested to see whether I carry the gene that could determine, one day, whether I live or die. Yet I have resisted for more than ten years, since the test was made available on a wide basis. I just don’t want to know.

I was in the car yesterday when I heard that Angelina Jolie had made public her decision, following her discovery that she carries BRCA1, to have a prophylactic double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Lest you are tempted to tag this as a publicity stunt, don’t be. The decision to undergo this procedure is an incredibly courageous, radically life-altering one, one that I am 100% sure Jolie did not make lightly, nor without the maximum of sleepless nights that must accrue to such a choice. Jolie writes, in her New York Times op-ed piece, that her mother died at 56 of breast cancer. My own mother was 55 when she got sick, and I will never forget having to answer the first thing she said when she was coming out of anesthesia after her radical mastectomy, which we had all hoped would be a lumpectomy: ‘They had to take it all, didn’t they?’

My mother’s question summed up just how important breasts are, and I make that statement without attaching any irony or humor to it. Our breasts serve as an integral part of our identity as women—sometimes as our entire identity, depending on who’s looking. They define us as different from our gender opposites and, seemingly without inconsistency, serve as sexual markers and as nurturers of our children. On the other side of the equation, they foster inequality and single us out for attention, not always of the positive kind. In Jolie’s case, they have contributed a great deal to her success, which grew initially not out of her talent (although that talent is not inconsiderable) but out of her image as a sex symbol. So it can’t have been an easy decision for her to decide to cut them off.

If I can’t imagine even deciding to get tested—if the courage so many people generously say I have fails me when I think about being told, as Jolie was, that I have an 87% chance of developing breast cancer—imagine the courage Jolie had to have to assimilate that information; discuss it with her partner (who, according to Jolie, was exceptionally supportive—and why not? He’s a good Missouri boy, born and raised just 40 miles from where my mother lived); make the choice; have the surgeries (yes, plural); and then choose to go public, knowing the firestorm of attention her op-ed would generate. And I’m guessing that Jolie herself doesn’t see that attention as some kind of karmic reward for good behavior. Google “Angelina Jolie breasts” today and you’ll get very different results than you would have two days ago. I am in awe of Jolie’s decision to warn other women to take their own risks seriously by going public with one of the most private decisions a woman can possibly make—especially given her status, and her career.

Jolie says she made the decision so that her six children would not have to lose her at an early age. She also says that her choice, rather than making her feel ‘less of a woman,’ rendered her ‘empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.’ Fitting for a woman who was once called ‘the perfect mix of Bond girl and Bond.’ But I wonder how it feels to be Angelina Jolie today…what it’s like to know that from now on, every time you appear in public, people will be staring at you with a different set of assumptions: Knowing that your breasts are fake; comparing the breasts you have now with the breasts you used to have; wondering if the breasts you have now feel different to you, to others; having different (and possibly scarily unsettling) fantasies about you. Still, as Jolie so wisely writes, ‘Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.’ Although she was talking there about her choice to remove and reconstruct the two organs that, for a time, virtually defined her public identity, she might as well have been talking about the media blitz that has accrued to her decision to try to spare not only her children, but others, the loss of their mother. That motive—the impetus to save others from a heartbreak you know far too well—is the real triumph of Jolie’s article. That, and the reminder that even if you were born into a family in which you were expected to be the pretty little angel, your breasts do not have to define you. Why has Angelina Jolie suddenly become a superhero to me, and to so many others? Because, in a thousand words, she reminded us all that breasts, in the end, are just tissue.