Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Shout Out to the Bad Girls

It seems that bad girls are back. Not only that, they’re big. For starters there’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the bane of Wall Street bankers, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who has been known to wear T-shirts claiming “Lucky for me he’s an ass man!” after losing both legs in combat, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the fist openly gay woman to serve in Congress.

Tammy Duckworth

A few years ago several books celebrated bad girls, including Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave edited by Ellen Sussman. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Ulrich was a run-away best-seller. Her title even gave rise to a now iconic slogan.

Some of my favorite novels are about bad girls. There was Madame Bovary, of course, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in which the protagonist, Edna, gives up her secure middle class life because, like Bovary, she can no longer survive a loveless marriage, the ennui of noblesse oblige, or an existence in which nothing meaningful ever happens. There’s Nora in Ibsen’s classic The Doll’s House who breaks out of her child-wife existence. What about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice? She refuses to conform to social expectations for an 18th century young woman of marriageable age because she doesn’t believe in the conventions of her day. And dare I forget to mention my favorite bad girl and literary muse, Hester Prynne of Scarlet Letter fame? Imagine having an out-of-wedlock child in Puritan New England, fathered by none other than the local clergy!

Hester and Baby Pearl

Then there are the bad girls who write bad thoughts or foster bad ideas or whose female characters are bad, at least by patriarchal standards. Think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her pals who wrote furious, articulate, reasoned treatises in favor of bad women who wanted to vote. Or Virginia Woolf,

Bad Girl Virginia Woolf

whose essays, letters and diary entries focused on gender-based injustices or on the daily lives of women. There’s Collette, Marguerite Dumas and Erica Jong, who all wrote about steamy sex. And those diarists and memoirists like Maya Angelou and May Sarton who did what poet Muriel Rukeyser challenged all women to do: tell the truth about their lives. Speaking of poets, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds are among the bad girls. They aired their dirty laundry in public and opened a floodgate of 20th century truth-telling along with Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. Oh, Lord, so many splendid bad girls! A veritable feast of Blah Blah Sisterhood!

So what drives the image and the actions of the bad girl? From a traditionally patriarchal perspective it’s not hard to figure out. Bad girls are unafraid to exercise their power and that’s scary. Joyfully claiming their sexuality, they negotiate sex and sometimes “just say no.” They speak up and speak out. They don’t always do what they’re told, or what’s expected. They shake up the status quo. (Think of it – voting women who could make a difference!) Educated women are sure to be uppity, and unite, especially if they are economically independent.

The same holds true for why bad girls behave as they do. They may be wicked, ambitious, funny, admirable or brave; they may be from different generations, cultures or races, but they have this in common: They refuse to let society inhibit their imaginations, opportunities, or goals. They will not be controlled, in body or spirit. They may suffer but they never yield to forces trying to contain them. They deny dependency, suffocation, boredom, smallness. As Emma Bovary realized before her revolt, “A man is free, at least. Free to range,…to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest of pleasures. Whereas a woman is continually thwarted.” What bad girls seek is the freedom to be, to act, to create, to go forth and experience the world. Who among us doesn’t share that longing?

Bad girls refuse to be thwarted or diminished. Their appetite for life is large and they are not ashamed to feed the hunger. Their answer to Freud’s question – “What do women want?” – is simple. They want it all and they are willing to take risks to get as much of it as they can. So they can sometimes be outrageous, but they are also admirable and often enviable. Their essential nature is writ large upon the tablet of history and literature and whether we like it or not, they have taught us all a thing or two.

So do yourself a favor: Find a bad girl to hang out with occasionally. You never know what you might learn and you could be surprised at how much fun it is being that risqué. As one of the world’s best bad girls, Mae West, said, just “keep cool and collect.”

The Heart of Birthing: Doulas and the Support They Offer

With the second annual World Doula Week having just ended, I’ve been reflecting once more on why I became a volunteer doula and what the work means to me.

I’m a baby freak, plain and simple. As a young candy-striper I routinely snuck into the pediatrics ward so I could rock sick kids. While my high school friends dated, I babysat. If I hadn’t been a product of the fifties, I might have considered becoming a obstetrician or a midwife. Instead I followed the path that most girls my age did: I went to college for a liberal arts degree and then became a secretary — a medical secretary.

My real career began when I became program director in 1979 for the National Women’s Health Network, a Washington, D.C.-based education and advocacy organization dedicated to humane, holistic, evidence-based, feminist approaches to women’s health care. In 1985 I went to Nairobi for the final international conference of the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985). Inspired by that amazing event and armed with a master’s degree in health communication, I began working internationally on behalf of women and children, always trying to bring a gender lens to the table.

In the midst of all this, I gave birth twice. My children were born in the seventies as the women’s health movement, and individual women, were beginning to advocate for natural childbirth and to resist the traumas of overly-medicalized birth experiences. We took Lamaze classes, learned about nursing, expected dads to be active in our deliveries. I was lucky: not only were my labors quick and unremarkable, but the small community hospital where I delivered was sympathetic to the changes taking place in birthing. There were no monitors, no drugs “to take the edge off” if you didn’t want them, no enemas, no shaving, and no macho-docs (although I couldn’t talk my doctor out of the episiotomy). I labored with my nurse and my husband and when the time came to push, I watched my babies come into this world in total awe of what had just happened and what I had done.

Several years ago, I learned that my local hospital had a volunteer doula program. Signing up was a no-brainer and I’ve now had the honor of supporting dozens of women and their partners as they’ve done the hard work of delivering a baby. Not one of them has failed to say afterwards, “I couldn’t have done it without you!” (They could, but I’m glad to have eased their experience.)

One of the early births I attended stands out in my mind. It was a first pregnancy and the mom labored stoically for thirty-six hours, pushing for five, before her son was born. As the hours passed, I held her hand, wet her lips, wiped strands of matted hair from her eyes, rubbed her back. “You can do this,” I whispered in her ear when she grew doubtful. “You’re doing a magnificent job! Soon your baby will be born.” As the baby finally crowned, wet, dark hair pressing urgently against her, I held the mother’s leg in my arm, her hand clenching my free wrist as she cried out with that guttural groan of a woman pushing her child to life outside the womb. And suddenly, there he was, head emerging, wet and pinking up even as his perfect little body swam into being. Later, swaddled and suckling at his mother’s breast, his father, eyes wet, whispered across the bed to me, “Women’s bodies are so miraculous!”

“Yes,” I said, my own eyes filling, “Miraculous.” Always miraculous, no matter how many times you give witness, or weep yourself to see a woman giving birth.

Doula supported childbirth has been proven to reduce the incidence of c-sections, shorten the length of labor, reduce the number of medicated births, increase breastfeeding and provide higher satisfaction for mothers regarding their birth experience. As one pediatrician put it, we are “the descendants of those millions of women who gathered at bedsides around the world” to help women through labor and delivery. “Some day we may again reach a point where women rely on the traditional circle of birth-experienced [women] to ease them through childbirth. … Until then, skilled, compassionate doulas will ably stand in for them.”

That is why I feel privileged to do this voluntary work. It is simply an honor to give witness to birth, and to offer as many women as possible the opportunity to have a birth that is supported, memorable, and full of joy.

Putting an End to ‘The Woman Question’

Recently Sigmund Freud’s irritating, macho-man question – “What do women want?” – has been making a comeback. Several television programs have addressed the question in interviews and soft news stories while exploring topics ranging from work/home issues to the role of activist nuns under a new papacy. A forthcoming book on “the science of female desire” (written by a man, of course) is actually titled “What Do Women Want?” Sigmund Freud

In an attempt to lay to rest once and for all the interminable query that causes men to continue scratching their heads, here are some basic answers.

First, we want the question itself to disappear. The fact that it keeps popping up as if females were a bizarre sub-species beyond human comprehension suggests that, despite growing numbers of women in governance, board rooms, military action, and more, we remain an enigma just for wanting to be part of life in all its sectors and social spheres.

We certainly want to be free from sexual and domestic violence no matter what we wear, where we go, and whether we have a few drinks with friends. Even after horrendous reports of gang rapes in India, including that of a Swiss tourist, and the Steubenville, OH rape of a 16-year old whose hideous assault went viral we continue to find ourselves counseled to behave defensively while perpetrators of rape and other violent crimes are shielded by their churches, universities, and workplaces. Why, we ask, are males not taught boundaries, respect for women, and behavioral norms that when violated accrue serious criminal consequences? And while we’re on the topic, we want the U.S. to join other civilized nations in ratifying the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW and to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.

We want our reproductive health and rights – our bodies – to remain in our own control, not that of opinionated, ill-informed, misogynistic men who blather on like Victorian pooh-bahs rather than 21st century humanists or civil rights advocates. That means men in Vatican Versace – think red shoes with matching chapeau – don’t get to keep us from accessing reliable contraception, or abortion if that is the agonizing, private decision we come to. Nor do Neanderthal politicians or bad boy bosses get to keep birth control pills out of reach. We are not forced to undergo medical rape or to die for the sake of a fetus as a woman in Ireland did recently. In short, as a group of brave women in Boston declared decades ago, “Our Bodies, Ourselves”!

April 9th being Equal Pay Day, we underscore that we want to earn wages equal to men. Despite some gains in workplace legislation (e.g., The Lily Ledbetter Act) we continue to be paid 77 percent, on average, of what men make even though equal pay for women is legally codified. That means a typical woman working full-time for the course of her career stands to have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income by the age of 65. No wonder “the feminization of poverty” continues to be a pressing issue for feminist analysts and economists.

Finding ways to balance work and home demands remains a challenge in all western societies but it would be nice if we could join the list of countries striving for gender equality in this realm. In Sweden, for example, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), men spend 177 minutes a day cooking, cleaning or caring for children, although women there still spend 259 minutes a day on domestic work. In Australia, both men and women devote approximately 14 hours per day to personal care and leisure. And in France, parents of two or more children can leave employment or reduce working time after childbirth and receive a flat-rate childcare benefit for up to three years. Is it really asking too much for American women to want safe, affordable day care so that they can earn a decent living without fearing for their children?

Finally, we want a seat at the tables of decision and policy-making and a place in discussions involving post-conflict resolution. Anyone watching Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

Kirstin Gillibrand

during recent hearings on sexual assault in the military could see the impact of having women legislators. In the business sector, even given recent gains for women as CEOs of major companies like Yahoo!, only 12 Fortune 500 companies and 25 Fortune 1000 companies had women CEOs or presidents as of 2009. And as writer Damilola Agbajobi has noted, “paying special attention to the different experiences of women and men is critical in designing successful conflict management and peacebuilding programmes.”

So, what do women want? It’s simple: Peace, personal security, a fair paycheck, the ability to parent well, and the right to rule our own bodies. Anyone who still has a problem understanding that ought to ask themselves what they want. If the answer is a win-win world, there should be no reason to resurrect Freud’s silly question, now or ever.