For those who’ve “never really faced inequality”: How nice! But it’s not just about you.

Generally speaking, I live in a world where my Facebook feed is best described by the phrase “preaching to the choir.” The lefties of my life – from college, graduate school, and my current university – post on a fairly predictable host of issues and from fairly predictable perspectives. I’m fine with this. I often agree and sometimes share and am happy to have yet more fuel to add to my fire on any number of topics. I like my little like-minded world where I can pretend everyone cares about racial & gender equality, legal & economic justice, environmental protection, celebrity gossip, and the real and hopefully forever comeback of rompers and overalls. All of which is to say that when I come across the alternative perspective, I’m often taken aback. Wait, what? People don’t think like us?

Then I analyze. Then I stew. Then I rebut, sometimes publicly (keep reading, please).

My feed recently featured an article entitled “Big Bang Theory Star Just Said the Most Conservative Thing on the Internet,” from youngcons.com (Young Conservatives: http://www.youngcons.com/big-bang-theory-star-just-said-conservative-thing-internet/#2hLUbfp1E7QLxGAu.99). I clicked. Why, oh why, did I click? Because I just cannot resist.

This Young Conservative article declared that Kaley Cuoco’s recent Redbook feature interview would have “liberal feminists yanking out their underarm hair and screaming not-so-sweet sentiments into her virtual ear via social media.” Well. Let’s not even get started on what radical feminists might think.

When asked if she is a feminist, she responded, “Is it bad if I say no?”

It’s not. If people choose to reject the idea of social, economic, and political equality between the sexes, that’s their business.

The Young Conservative piece speculated that part of the interview that would really raise feminist ire against Cuoco was her statement “I like the idea of women taking care of their men. I’m so in control of my work that I like coming home and serving him.” She’s talking about making this man, her husband, dinner. Fine. Whatever. She claims that she likes feeling like a housewife. Also fine. And just speculating her, but she probably particularly enjoys feeling like a housewife because a) she’s not; b) cooking is approximately 1/100 of what being a housewife is about; and c) she can stop feeling like (or pretending to be) a housewife whenever she wants. Good thing feminists pushed for women to have choices of this kind.

I am a for real feminist. And I will tell you right now I don’t care that she likes cooking a meal for her husband. I have been known to cook a meal for my husband as well. Cat’s out of the bag.

I do, however, take issue with other parts of the interview. And the fact that the Young Conservatives piece didn’t recognize the problematic nature of the following statement, for me, reveals just how little those on the other side of the feminist debate really understand about feminism. The quote, re: feminism: “It’s not really something I think about,” she said. “Things are different now, and I know a lot of the work that paved the way for women happened before I was around… I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality.”

Record scratch.

First, let’s take a minute to discuss The Big Bang Theory, of which Cuoco is a star. I feel fine about this show. It’s not uncommon that someone in my house is watching this show. But it is not a program that features particularly enlightened views of sex or gender (or race, but whatever). Cuoco’s character, Penny (no last name – unlike all other main characters), the failed actress, waitress, community college student turned stellar pharmaceutical rep is regularly the butt of jokes for her a) stupidity; b) sexual promiscuity; c) drinking. In the world of super-smart nerd scientists, she has street smarts, but they’re of the kind where she sends in a check for the less-than-required amount to pay her electric bill, along with a picture of herself in a bra, all in the hopes that she’ll get a bit of an extension. Cuoco, in landing this part, a dream job, I’m sure, may not have faced inequality, but she’s MAKING BANK on exploiting tired – and often sexist and unequal – views of gender and sexuality. I will not even engage with the episode in which she and the “girl scientists” go to Disneyland and do the whole dress-like-a-princess thing that apparently you can do at that place. (Sidenote: I don’t even *not like* TBBT, and I’m sure experts of the show could argue opposite points to those I’ve made, but my evidence is not wrong.)

princesses

Second, and much more importantly, I take issue with Cuoco’s “It’s not really something I think about” and “I’ve never really faced inequality.” How nice it must be not to worry about issues of inequity that half the population faces daily and without respite. How easy it must be to think only of yourself and not give consideration to other people and their experiences. How simple it must be to ignore your privileged position and thus ignore the realities of people’s lives as they struggle in a system that, at its core, privileges certain segments of the population over others.

Again, it’s okay not to be a feminist. I accept that. But I will not accept a political perspective – even one that’s as seemingly unintentionally political as Cuoco’s – based pretty clearly on willful ignorance and limited regard for any experience beyond one’s own.

So yes, as a feminist (albeit one with shaved pits), I have beef with Cuoco’s sentiments. But for reasons apparently unanticipated by the Young Cons.

To come back to my Facebook feed: another article caught my attention more recently and prompted me to put to paper the ideas floating in my head about Cuoco’s Redbook interview. California Magazine (Winter 2014) published an article that asked “What Stalled the Gender Revolution?” and answered “Child Care that Costs More Than College Tuition” (http://caa-web-prod-01.ist.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/winter-2014-gender-assumptions/what-stalled-gender-revolution-child-care-costs). Ummmm…YES. As author Tamara Straus reported, “A 2013 report from Child Care Aware noted that as of 2012, in 31 states and the District of Columbia, day care is more expensive than one year of public college tuition—and that was among a cohort of faculty, people with the highest levels of education.” RECORD SCRATCH AGAIN. I know this stuff, and my jaw still hit the floor.

1941 Conference on Day Care

A working mother drops her son at a federally-subsidized nursery school in 1943. Between 1943 and 1946, a half a million children received care in such centers. After World War II ended, they were closed. Please note: better support for working mothers in 1943 than in 2015.

Straus also states, “Feminism isn’t a prominent social movement in this country anymore. And one reason for this is blazingly clear: We don’t have an affordable, taxpayer-subsidized system of infant-to-12 child care that levels the playing field for all women, their partners, and their children. What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes.” Those who are unaffected by the inequity (ahem, Ms. Cuoco) ignore that inequity, or even worse, and this is the true crime, believe and willfully perpetuate the idea that it isn’t there.

The individualism that emerged at the end of the Second Wave, as the Second Wave weathered attack by increasingly conservative forces of the Reagan Revolution and the Religious Right, is precisely what contemporary feminists must combat. The personal is political, but it’s our collective personal that should be motivating our political activism. Shout out to Tamara Straus for writing so beautifully what we in my world – virtual and in-person – so often discuss: “My plea to the remaining feminists out there is this: Let’s find some class solidarity and make government-subsidized child care a campaign issue. Let’s identify and vote for candidates who see affordable child care as a legislative necessity. Such family-friendly demands would make sense to low- and middle-income women. They would bring more people back into the feminist fold, and they might even revitalize a movement.” And to that end, I’ll answer Cuoco’s question of “Is it bad if I say no?” in this way, the way a politically engaged interviewer might have: It would be better if you said yes.

Goodbye Norma Jean (and Fall Semester 2014)…

“It doesn’t really take any talent to spread your legs.” So said a student during a discussion of Marilyn Monroe during my first offering of a class on the history of the American Dream. He was referring to the notorious “casting couch” spirit of the postwar Hollywood studio system and Monroe’s willingness to engage in whatever it took to get noticed, get cast, or, ideally, get a contract in that climate. As the discussion continued, this student revealed he’d never seen a Monroe film, but he was inclined to regard the “dumb blonde” archetype she portrayed across her career as an expression of the real Monroe rather than an indication of any sort of comic acting chops. Well, then. I pushed this student, but he was unwilling to bend in his assessment. Apparently our efforts to “reconsider the past through analysis of historians’ arguments and primary source evidence” were not encouraging him to reconsider his pre-class opinions.

I’ve been teaching for a while now, and increasingly, when I find myself in this kind of position in the classroom, my response is to head back to the drawing board. Something isn’t working.

I’ve just concluded my offering of the American Dream class for a second time. For this installment, I revised the entirety of the course from top to bottom. Marilyn was among the few figures not cut in the overhaul (a] she is FASCINATING; b] I owed her redemption!). As part of the revision process, Monroe was much better situated in a discussion of idealized 1950s womanhood, a brand of womanhood that suggested a woman’s earning power was directly linked to the career aspirations and success of the man she managed to marry. His American Dream was hers (or maybe more accurately, he was hers?). To that end, Monroe is both an embodiment and a challenge (in her films and in her life), and fits beautifully in a section of the course that is all about invention and reinvention.

I assigned segments of Lois Banner’s biography of Monroe, 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire (where Monroe is SO BEAUTIFUL and SO FUNNY), and excerpts from Gloria Steinem’s Marilyn biography. The readings are really engaging (if I do say so myself), with Banner considering the public image of Monroe, the views of those she worked with, and Marilyn’s efforts to establish agency and personal power in a time when both were in short supply for a woman in her field. Steinem thinks about Monroe’s legacy – with a particular focus on what the feminist movement has meant for her memory and what it might have meant for her, both personally and professionally, had she lived longer. Along with the film and some in-class source work, it is a good section of the class (again: if I do say so myself).

MMglasses

Monroe as Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire

Really good for me: I had a *great* class. They were smart and engaged from the first. They did the good work of highlighting themes across the course, of putting figures into conversation with one another, of establishing what has given the American Dream the longevity it has enjoyed and where it has revealed itself as a mythic and often unattainable creation. And, as it turns out, they were willing to disagree with each other. But it took Marilyn Monroe for that willingness to reveal itself.

Banner’s chapter on Monroe talks about the years leading to super stardom where MM would wear the sexiest possible dress to a party in order to assure that she’d be noticed. Banner writes about Monroe’s conflicts with authority and her habitual lateness on the set, but she reminds readers about the tyrannical nature of 1950s directors and their impatience with “silly women.” She highlights the difference between the studio’s focus on the bottom line versus an emerging view among Hollywood stars that they were artists, not interchangeable parts that could be turned on and off at a moment’s notice. She reveals that Marilyn, for all the trouble she allegedly caused with her demands as she made films, was never once late to a dance class or voice lesson.

For me, it was clear that Monroe worked – and worked hard – during her early years in Hollywood. She consciously had cultivated a style intended to aid her ascendancy to stardom. She did what she had to do to get by in terms of appearance and enduring typecasting, but beyond that, she showed tremendous savvy in developing a compelling interview style and crafting an unforgettable screen presence. Some students in the class agreed. Others: not so much. While several students commended Monroe for her understanding of the way media worked, others were resistant to see Monroe as active in shaping her stardom. What’s more: they didn’t like her. They thought she was cocky and arrogant. In this class, we discussed Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Welles, and not once had the charge of arrogance been made. Even after discussing the context of late 1940s/early 1950s womanhood, when being linked to a man was the surest way of succeeding, the class was divided on whether or not we wanted to assign Monroe “risk-taker” status (an important element to achieving the American Dream, so said my class). When she was still a teenager, with no family and no sure source of income, she basically walked away from her ace-in-the-hole husband with hopes a modeling and film career would pan out. IN 1946. And we don’t know if we want to call her a risk taker? Hopefully my face was not communicating what my brain was screaming, which was WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!?

Even after watching Monroe on screen, the divides persisted. When I asked if she had not played a great dumb blonde, the old view reared its ugly head: “I’m not so sure she’s ‘playing’ dumb,” said one student. Others nodded in agreement. Multiple students expressed the belief that it hadn’t needed to be Norma Jean Mortensen/Dougherty who became Marilyn Monroe – someone else could’ve done it. Apparently students were ready to shed their faith in individualism during Week 13, when only two weeks earlier they’d been adamant that only Jackie Robinson could’ve been Jackie Robinson. Unwilling to accept the necessity of Monroe’s alleged use of sexual favors to make her way up the star ladder, another student noted, “I don’t know a lot of women stars from this time, but I’m sure not everyone did that.” And yet this student admitted that she’d known Marilyn Monroe before she enrolled in a course on the History of the American Dream, begging the question: what was the surest path to stardom for a woman determined to be a star? Particularly a woman with no money, no education, no connections? Over the course of the semester, it was not uncommon for students to commend figures of the past for trading in on whatever currency they had. And yet sexual currency seemed not a currency to commend.

The unwillingness to accept neither the labor of beauty nor the labor of feminine agreeability (which Marilyn often displayed in spades) and the further unwillingness to accept the potential talent of a sexually attractive woman (Monroe’s great sadness during her life) reminded me of things I already know. But I was disappointed to see these truisms revealed in my class. HOWEVER. I did note my class’s willingness to debate, and there were strong voices supporting Marilyn, too. Several students placed her squarely in the mold of 1950s womanhood – and saw, as I hoped they would, both the possibilities and limits of her role. After reading Steinem, one student said she’s wished for Marilyn to have lived long enough to read The Feminine Mystique while another noted that she believed Marilyn would’ve thrived in the world of women’s liberation where she would have found a community of women with whom she could’ve discussed their many shared experiences (sexual abuse, miscarriages, general anxiety). Another student, who felt so sorry for Monroe, reported to me days later that her philosophy class had just read feminist philosophy and her feelings for Marilyn weren’t just sympathy: she was looking at her through a feminist perspective! HALLELUJAH! I did NOT have this cluster of defenders in my first discussion of Monroe.

MM

And that has been my point in writing this far too long post: there is POWER in education to change perspective even if we feel like we’re sometimes going up against a wall. Students who have taken classes on women’s history, human sexuality, or any number of other courses that encourage consideration of the roles of gender and sexuality in social or cultural construction used their analytical skills and their content knowledge to challenge reductions of Monroe to a mere sex symbol bombshell. They considered who and what made her what she was – and what she did to challenge expectations and ideals and the obstacles she faced as she did. The idea that they’ll take with them this willingness to consider alternative perspectives and challenge widespread assumptions as they leave the classroom and head into the future not only gives me hope but also a sense of the power of what we do in the classroom to make a difference in the world beyond. And I’m grateful for this now, at this moment, when I have been feeling so powerless. As I’ve just concluded a long semester and face another one looming after a too short break, I’m determined to take this optimism with me. As I’m gearing up for another 15 week stretch, it’s good to be reminded that both the time we spend in and the time we spend on our classes is time well spent.

In Defense of an Alleged Bridezilla

For the past several days, I’ve seen a number of articles related to an alleged Bridezilla how had the audacity to come out on Facebook and detail who she and her fiancé had not invited to their wedding and why.

Her post and the accompanying list:

We are sending out invites for the wedding this week. Going through the list of people to invite. We only have so much room at the church and reception. I’m going to try to make this as simple as possible so no one gets butt hurt. If you do not get an invite here is a list of potential reasons why.

1. If I have invited you every time we have a group function and you never show up.

2. If you are just a work acquaintance and I have never hung out with you outside of work.

3. If I show up to things you invite me to and you never show up to our invites or even respond.

4. If I have only hung out with you in a group setting and we’re not that close of friends.

5. If at any point you have ever talked s— about me you’re definitely not invited.

6. If you’re only going to show up for food and alcohol and really have no interest other than that.

7. If you got married and I thought we were friends and you didn’t invite me.

bridezilla

People are up in arms about this thing. I’m not. For my money, the real beef is this: she voiced a process that is supposed to be conducted in silence. The deciding of who’s in and who’s out can be the most gut-wrenching part of a wedding. But venues are venues and budgets are budgets. Cuts have to be made. Here, this woman is being deliberate in explaining how hers were decided.

When I was a kid in New Jersey (kid = 23 years old), someone told me that once you get engaged, you shouldn’t make any friends for the duration of your engagement. Why? The wedding. That list can’t be expected to expand. If you have a new friend, what will happen to that friendship if new friend (and date) are excluded? Play your cards close to your vest, immerse yourself in the wedding, and then once married, pursue all the new friendships your heart desires. I think I wasn’t hearing something totally out of the ordinary or particularly untoward. My sense is that this was a sort of rule of thumb.

And to that end, I suspect the social media component of this Bridezilla’s list is the real problem. Pre-Facebook, etc., if you didn’t invite to your wedding a work friend with whom you’d never hung out outside of work, you might endure some awkward workplace encounters wherein your wedding was the topic of conversation. And then everyone would move on. In the post-Facebook world, if you’re “friends” with this person, s/he will be reminded of your wedding over and over again: s/he will get a sense of who in the office was invited; s/he will see any and all wedding-related posts; s/he will endure endless wedding photos and congratulatory posts. And so on and so forth. Being forthright in explaining how the wedding guest list was created, to some extent, saves the non-invitee from the wondering of why s/he was excluded.

I’m not going to go crazy here and say alleged Bridezilla was kind in her post. But she was transparent. It’s the kind of thing one could post and then say in defense, “I’m just being honest!” I have a saying, and it goes like this: there’s a difference between being honest and being an asshole. But sometimes people can be both (see above). Bridezilla is not the right term here. What she’s saying isn’t unreasonable. But is she decisive and outspoken? Yes. And there, of course, is the slippery slope in which we monstracize any woman who shows these characteristics.

At the end of the day, those outraged by the post should take comfort: This poor woman apparently isn’t familiar with the universal truth that all weddings guests are basically only in it for “the food and alcohol.” Live and learn, sister. Live and learn.

The Search for Advice and Why I Won’t (Can’t) Abandon It Entirely

Before even getting to the meat of this post, I must confess: I have an extremely troubled relationship with prescriptive (aka advice) literature. Friends who’ve heard me go on about this before: sorry to repeat (but you had to know that one day I’d try to write this out of my system). Others: here we go.

In my scholarship, I often go to town on advice lit from the past, analyzing, dissecting, critiquing, figuring out what, exactly, any given “expert” believed as hard fact for the “correct” behaviors of a person in any given role – usually, for my most recent purposes, husband or wife, man or woman on the prowl, bride-to-be or groom-to-be. I don’t believe that there is one way to be a spouse, one way to snag a partner, one way to host a wedding. Nor has there ever been. But an “expert,” looking to prey upon those who did and looking to move his/her product, insisted that his/her way was the best, the only way. Come on. No way. How could people have taken these texts seriously?

And yet, when a baby came to live with us, I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for advice lit designed for new parents. Not as any kind of cerebral, objective observer, but as a total desperado in need of answers. I dog-eared pages and used tabs to remind me of passages that included the best, most essential advice. I timed “awake time” so that I wouldn’t be a minute too soon or too late in moving baby into nap mode. I scoured the approved list of activities so that I wouldn’t accidentally overstimulate this child and prevent her from sleeping. There was a terrible morning where my husband and I, inspired by a baby advice book, mapped out a multi-week schedule – on a LEGAL PAD, no less – to transition her from 3-hour to 4-hour feedings. If you see a sleep theme here, you’re on the right track.

Some of the information in some of these books was sometimes very helpful. Some of it was crazy. And sometimes the tone of the author was terrible. One book, in particular, chastised parents for “accidental parenting” – cases in which they’d allowed difficult behaviors or patterns to develop in their infants. Back when baby was weeks old, I would sometimes weep thinking about my accidental parenting practices (HORMONES). Eventually, I wanted a face-to-face meeting with said author so I could explain just how fng deliberate I’d been. But even when I was reeling from giving birth, nursing, realizing the weight of what we’d just committed to, and feeling pregnancy hormones wash out and nursing hormones take their place, I *knew* the many problems with prescriptive literature. Even as I turned to it time after time. As noted above, I’ve made a practice of taking these kinds of texts down. But in the craziness of new baby, when my husband and I were grappling for answers, prescriptive literature seemed a better alternative to the anecdotal world of what you find when you google “6 weeks baby nap trouble.” I knew these books were so flawed and yet I COULDN’T STOP LOOKING TO THESE BOOKS FOR ANSWERS. It was a terrible vortex.

Have I learned anything from this? Sadly, no. Case in point: I recently checked out Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family. With this text, I explicitly was looking for advice. On the one hand, we’ve established a pretty good balance in this house; on the other hand, seeing what others have done to this end seemed like a good idea. I realize this isn’t exactly intended as an advice text and is formatted as a study, but it still sort of is advice-related, providing evidence from people who’ve already traveled the path I’m on, reflecting and identifying what good or bad decisions they’d made, all of which, theoretically, could be of use to me. The premise: the authors, having heard all about the many challenges women face when it comes to managing an academic career – and specifically, one that advances to tenure status – and a family, wanted to present a more optimistic view, one that suggests that the academy is a good place to be a professional and a parent, to find the all-to-elusive “balance.” I agree with the impulse behind this study in many ways. The kind of flexibility an academic post affords is incredible, and for that, I am grateful. But from the get go, my relationship with this text was flawed.

My immediate beef: the authors’ descriptions of their own experiences. One author delivered a baby mid-semester. Her solution to work/life balance: skip ONE CLASS (for delivery) and then return to teaching, often with baby in tow. And if class time intersected with when she needed to nurse said baby, she’d do so. In class. RECORD SCRATCH. If one of the persons collecting and evaluating evidence considers *this* to be an example of balance, or even of reasonable professional expectations, I need go no further (even though I did [and in all fairness, the author admitted that she should have pushed for better accommodation]). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just because you *can* multitask doesn’t mean you should. So many things have to go so right for that kind of solution to even be an option, I sort of don’t know where to begin. Not to mention the fact that everyone in that scenario – mom, baby, students – deserves better. And if mom is too nervous to advocate her right to a better situation or, even worse, fails to imagine that a better one could exist (and this when she’d already been awarded tenure), then this book is a case in point about how the academy is often a very uncompromising place for working mothers hoping to advance. The other author, you ask? Her partner stayed home, full-time. Good for her. These starting points did little to assure me that I’d come to the right place. As I read on, too many stories were too much like this.

Maybe I’d begun with hopes too high. I know of too many instances where even a “good” setup isn’t great. I can’t fault a text for not being exactly what I wanted it to be. I will say, even with my reaction to these stories, I appreciate the fact that these people are recognizing the privileged position academics hold, contributing to a conversation very worth having, and coming up with recommendations for how to improve very important (and too often ignored) workplace issues. Additionally, there’s something valuable to draw from this text – and even from my disappointment in said text. Work-life “balance,” the “right” way of raising up a child, the “only” way to host a wedding – all of these are so wildly individualized, there’s no way that one text is ever going to do everything for everyone. But in this instance, in propelling me toward a visceral reaction to what others term “balance,” I came away with a better sense of my own vision of what that means. And I felt more confident about the choices my husband and I have made on our eleven-month journey with our tiny human. That said, our practices wouldn’t be perfect for everyone, just as the authors’ practices would not have been realistic for me or my family. So be it. Throughout the text, that was the common thread: individuals working out scenarios that worked best for them in their individual circumstances. Of course as I think about this, I think how nice it would be if there were a some kind of structural change, an attempt by our leadership and institutions to guarantee a smoother effort toward the blend of work and home through actual policy. Alas. You may say I’m a dreamer (or a socialist), but that would alleviate so much of the tension women – and men – feel in their efforts to do and be all that they wish to do and be. (As an aside: it was staggering to see how many women had to come up with “solutions” to their pregnancies on their own; very few institutions had policies in place.)

Am I offering solutions here? No way. After all, I’m no Kim Kardashian (http://jezebel.com/kim-kardashian-knows-all-about-being-a-working-mom-1601998628). I would never presume to speak for everyone, and I’m still looking for advice. As a person who wants answers to my questions and solutions to my problems and who has long looked to books for knowledge and direction, I’m not about to go cold turkey. Upon reconsideration, it’s possible that I have learned something during my last few months of advice seeking. As I move forward, I’ll aim to remember to be savvier in my reading: taking what fits, disregarding the rest, and looking beyond the written word to the experiences and counsel of friends who are willing to share. In so doing, maybe I’ll be able to empathize more with my historical subjects who looked to prescriptive texts for answers, and practice in my personal life will yield professional results.

A Slippery Slope: Wedding Tradition v. Sexism

Slate’s Gentleman Scholar recently engaged with the question: Should men ask their future in-laws for permission to marry their daughters? Is this charmingly old-fashioned or disgustingly sexist? (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/weddings/2014/06/asking_future_in_laws_for_permission_to_marry_their_daughter_a_tradition.html)

Until women ask men’s parents for permission or blessing, it *is* sexist. Until that time, the one-sided practice suggests that a woman is passing from possession of one family to another. It ignores the fact that women are just as capable of self-support and independent decision making as men. And as the age at first marriage continues to rise, it’s increasingly ridiculous to ask permission to enter into a consenting committed partnership with a full-grown adult (not to mention the fact that the idea of marriage as “partnership” is harder to swallow if one party is checking in with a third party, re: the relationship moving forward [additionally: the continued focus on the man as proposer and the woman as propose plays to the inequality of the relationship – especially since decision-making about moving forward remains a male prerogative]).

And, of course, the piece relies on the fact that we’re still dealing solely with male-female unions. What happens to the process of asking permission or blessing when there are two men or two women wedding? Something I love about the growing visibility and increasing legality of same-sex weddings is that they reveal so clearly just how gendered (and archaic) so much of American wedding culture is.

Still, the Gentleman Scholar, in weighing in on this issue, is not wrong in suggesting that if the idea of securing permission or blessing is important to you and yours, talk it out, and decide what’s best for you. Fine. And I’m not suggesting those who ask for a blessing or permission are sexists, full stop. But I hope couples deciding to continue on with this non-tradition think through just what, exactly, it represents.

Which brings me to potentially the more interesting point of the article: the idea that this part of wedding culture is “traditional.” As one man claimed about his decision to ask permission of his then-girlfriend’s father “I thought that there was something in the ritual….I embraced the tradition despite the fact that the institution of marriage has evolved.” As the article notes, however, the tradition hasn’t been a tradition, really, in years. The Slate piece references the 1948 edition of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, which established that once a man and woman decided to wed, it was for the bride to inform her family of the decision. Many of the prescriptive texts I read for As Long As We Both Shall Love communicated the same point. Ideas of what is traditional, of what is a fundamental part of the wedding process, continue to shape decisions contemporary bride and grooms make as much as their own desires or actual traditions, established by previous generations within their families and handed down across generations. In writing about the use of blessing or permission, the Gentleman Scholar engages with the use of tradition: “We’re talking, in each case, about embracing traditional language to indicate respect for values more durable than the patriarchy from which that language emerged.” I don’t disagree with the idea that traditions evolve over time or that asking permission or blessing means something different now than it once did. But I can’t let go of the fact this alleged tradition still communicates the bride’s subordinate status. And I have to wonder what it means when, of all the possible traditions out there, this is among those that still has legs, especially when it seems simple enough to amend the tradition to this end: decide to get married; assume your parents see you both as competent adults; then – as a couple – tell each set of parents (or whomever) that you’ve decided to wed. Boom. Dilemma of sexism v. tradition/values solved.

Modern US Women’s History and the Teaching Of

At the end of every semester, I, like the students, am desperate to shake myself of the previous sixteen weeks. From the energized January beginning to the terrible no-man’s-land of mid-March to the final May mile of our collective marathon, the spring semester can drag. But even as I shout “SUMMER!” and wave my fists above my head in a gesture of celebration and release, I can’t ever let go entirely.

In this, the early portion of my summer, as I shift into a state of mind that is more focused on reading and research and writing, the teaching part of me won’t quit. How nice for me, then, that I’m lucky enough to teach what I also am lucky enough to read and research and write about.

This past semester, I oversaw a readings course on Modern US Women’s History. Over the course of our sixteen weeks, eight students and I read eight historical monographs. The structure of the course goes something like this: Each time we meet, one person prepares discussion questions, circulates them among his/her classmates, and then leads class discussion. Everyone writes about the book they’ve read. Everyone is expected to participate in discussion. I (try like hell – and regularly fail – to) keep my mouth shut for at least an hour of said discussion.

Ideally, the students learn content from the selected books, and even more ideally, they walk away with a sense of the historiography of the chosen topic (non-historians: historiography = historians’ way of describing themes, trends, discussions, debates among historians in the same/similar fields). Additionally, and maybe more importantly (definitely more importantly?), they learn to read books and write about books critically. They learn to compare texts and question how and why differences in interpretations of the past arise. They learn to analyze arguments and voice their analysis is a professional and measured way.

As always, I’d read the selected books in advance. I was prepared with the main ideas I wanted students to take away (the falsity of a singular “natural” version of womanhood versus the many varied embodiments of actual womanhood and an understanding that women’s history doesn’t follow a linear progressive narrative, FYI). But here’s what so wonderful about teaching and what’s really wonderful about teaching smart, engaged students: my themes and ideas were just the beginning. They identified and emphasized so many smart points that are fundamental to the study of women’s history, that I sense may be fundamental to my future teaching AND research, and that reflect significance beyond the world of history and relate directly to efforts towards contemporary sexual equality.

With all that prefacing out of the way, I give you some of Spring 2014’s greatest hits:

Point 1. There is a major difference between appreciation and value. YES. Throughout the course of our readings, ranging from the political world of the late 19th century to media representations of the 21st century, we came back to this idea over and over again. As we read Megan Winchell’s Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses during World War II, it became clear that the United States government, the USO, and the public at large appreciated the work women did in their voluntary service efforts to entertain American troops, but part of that appreciation stemmed from the fact that these women provided entertainment free of charge. Their service was celebrated as a cost-saving measure as much as it was an act of patriotic service. Similar appreciation revealed itself in discussions of women’s domestic duties. Housewives and mothers were celebrated as a cornerstone of the nation, but respect, admiration, and appreciation had to suffice as substitutes for financial compensation.

winchell

Point 2. Media and impossible-to-fulfill ideals just won’t quit. As we considered the influence of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, we noted how media played a fundamental role in shaping women’s views of what their lives should be (as Friedan emphasized). As we moved to consideration of the role of media in the 21st century, Susan Douglas’s Enlightened Feminism revealed how a new ideal, focused on sexual attractiveness, appropriate femininity, and a sense that feminism was no longer necessary, had become a model for young women and girls coming of age.

douglas

Point 3. Consumerism isn’t liberation. This point came through clearly in reading Kathy Peiss’s classic Cheap Amusements about women in turn-of-the 20th century New York, and, again, through Douglas’s Enlightened Sexism. Marketplace participation may have offered some measure of independence, but it also offered new sets of expectations that were difficult to fulfill, particularly for women who earned a fraction of what working men earned. As women endeavored to enjoy the new “cheap amusements,” while simultaneously paying room and board and dressing in the latest styles, they participated in an arrangement whereby men “treated” them to the dance hall or movies in exchange for sexual pleasures. Did this system provide a measure of autonomy? Sure. Did this system likewise contain an element of danger? Also yes. As for Douglas’s text, maybe one of the greatest moments of my teaching life occurred when a student picked up and extrapolated on Douglas’s critique of Oprah Winfrey for using her considerable power towards a consumerist end rather than toward an effort to establish and effect real political change.

Lunchtime, N>Y>, ca. 1910 Temple University Press  1986

Point 4. Focusing on the individual rather than the social structure in which the individual lives is A PROBLEM. Again: YES. When we place the onus on the individual woman to achieve the perfect career/life balance, or we suggest that she just face facts and realize that you get a career OR a personal life, sister, we’re using a rotten, rotten set of expectations and a deeply flawed logic. As Sara Evans’ notes, the shift toward individual fulfillment and the decline of collective activism – shaped not in small part by the Reagan administration’s systematic dismantling of feminist leadership and federal agencies – stalled the progress that was so widespread during the 1970s. I have given so much thought to the persisting structural inequality that continues to plague the United States, and the discussions with my students clarified something for me. As we concluded discussion of Evans’ Tidal Wave, which gives some consideration to Hilary Clinton, the conversation shifted to women in politics and the possibility of Clinton’s 2016 candidacy. A student asked, “Dr. Dunak, do you think a woman president will mean equality?” This question and my response crystallized for me how my views, re: American men and women, the world in which we live, and what would have to change for equality to be at all possible, have changed. “No,” I said. “A federally funded national maternity policy would be a more critical step toward sexual equality. Commitment to that kind of institutional change – across the population – would revolutionize families, the workplace, and, I think, the face of American politics.” Did I oversimplify things? Yes. Would this solve all our problems? No. Would it a start? Yes. And I think more of a start than a Madam POTUS. And maybe there are those who would tell me to keep my politics to myself, but a) they asked (sort of); b) consideration of the past, I maintain, should be a fundamental component of our efforts to create a better – and more equal – present and future; and c) this is a view that has emerged after careful investigation and analysis of widespread evidence, past and present.

evans

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ideas generated by and within our discussions. I have so many favorite lines that came out of this class, but I leave you with the moment I knew the class had been a success: A student admitted that she’d come to class not liking a book, but, still, had given the discussion a chance. At discussion’s end, she stated that she had to rethink her position about the text entirely. YES. And if that’s not the point, I don’t know what is.

And so: Huzzah for summer! But Huzzah!, too, for classes that linger even after the semester’s close.