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Archive for the tag “women’s rights”

Happy Birthday, Gloria Steinem

UnknownHappy Birthday, Gloria Steinem. If you are what eighty looks like, then there is hope in this world. And it is high time I thanked you for a few things.

First: Six years ago, for two weeks of my life, you gave me courage to get out of bed. It was April 2008. A cold April: frost every day, even a few snow flurries. Every morning, I huddled under the covers in my cottage at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers, reading your brilliant book of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

You have to understand, Gloria: I did not deserve to be at Hedgebrook, because I was not a real writer. Documentary filmmaker, occasional journalist, effective public affairs bloviator—you could call me all of the above. But writer? What was Hedgebrook thinking, giving me a cottage for two weeks on the basis of a script I’d written for a doc film about Alzheimer’s disease?

It was you who gave me courage to get over myself, get out of bed and start writing. Your honesty—about being a Playboy bunny, about your mother’s mental illness, about being a woman—inspired me to write honestly. Your voice—frank, funny, humble, confident—inspired me to try out my own.

I was writing about my mother, too. Or trying to. Her birthday is also March 25th. She would have been 83 today, had Alzheimer’s not marked her and claimed her far too young: at 74, after nearly two decades of relentless assault.

Even though my mother was just a few years older than you, Gloria, her life could not have been more different than yours. Six children. Divorced twice, widowed once. But the work you did in the sixties and seventies? Gloria, you changed my mother’s life. You gave her courage.

She may not have openly acknowledged the debt. She may have thought that it was all about her own pluck and stamina. But after my parents divorced and my mother went back to college at 38, what she was doing was taking charge of her life in a way that you and your colleagues in the women’s movement had made possible. Who knows? A few years earlier, she might have accepted alimony or gone back to work as a secretary. Instead, she fulfilled her long-deferred dream of studying English and becoming a teacher. Instead, she exemplified for her impressionable daughters the women’s movement—your movement—in action. Feminist rhetoric was reality, not theory, at our house.

So I thank you, Gloria, for being who you were at the end of the 1960s. And I thank you for being who you were, to me, as I lapped up your book at Hedgebrook on those frosty mornings in 2008. I knew you too had spent time at Hedgebrook (and would continue to come for several summers). Which meant that you too knew the power of a cottage and privacy all day followed by good food and conversation in the evenings.

And now, on this your 80th birthday, which is also my mother’s birthday, it gives me great joy to tell you that the memoir I started scribbling at Hedgebrook, inspired by you, is going to be published in September by She Writes Press. It’s called Her Beautiful Brain. Her_Beautiful_Brain

And here’s a remarkable thought: in your lifetime, Gloria, we have gone from a world where it was quite acceptable to believe that all women’s brains were actually inferior to men’s to a world in which we women know our brains are beautiful. You helped us get there. You helped me get there. So did my beautiful, brainy mom. Happy Birthday to both of you.

Arlene and 6 kids

Only  a few spots left in my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.

The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. on; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.


Doll’s House

DSC00865“Teenage Girl Blossoming into Beautiful Object,” proclaimed a recent headline in the Onion. The faux-newspaper goes on to describe the high school junior’s, quote, “staggering metamorphosis from a young girl with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations into a truly stunning commodity.” This kind of nailing-of-truth-through-satire is what makes me a great fan of the Onion: where writers specialize in humor that makes you wince. And think: about the truth behind the laugh.

The struggle of young women—to be treated as persons, not objects—is not a new theme. It’s not a “problem” we’re going to “solve” overnight. It is a chronic danger; one that burbles up over and over again, in every corner of the world. In many places, more poisonously than others.

I recently saw Seattle Shakespeare Company’s riveting production of one of theatre’s most moving stories about a woman’s struggle to be a person, not a plaything: Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. At first, we think the main character, Nora, is as pretty and flighty as her husband Torvald thinks she is. He treats her like a little girl and she behaves like one. But as the plot thickens, we understand more and more about Nora. She has a secret: without telling Torvald, she took out a loan to save his health. Her pretense was that she got the money from her father. Now she’s being blackmailed. Pressure is mounting. She has to confess to Torvald. Will he stand by her? Will he understand the depth of love behind what she has done? No. Torvald can’t comprehend that his wife is not the pretty china doll he thought she was. He cares more about whether she has besmirched his reputation. And so Nora rises up, at the end of this 130-year-old play, and delivers one of drama’s most impassioned pleas for personhood. She tells Torvald she can longer be his “doll-wife.”

“I must stand quite alone,” Nora says, “if I am to understand myself and everything about me. It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer.”

The United Nations singled out A Doll’s House for inclusion in its “memory of the world” registry, stating, quote, “few plays have had a similar impact globally on social norms and conditions.” Indeed, some theatre historians believe A Doll’s House is the world’s most produced play.

And yet Ibsen thought he was writing about the specific social conditions of his time. He titled his first draft of the play, written in 1878, Notes on the Tragedy of the Present Age. He had no idea how timeless and universal Nora’s struggle to define herself would become. How someday, that last scene would come to be called, as one actor friend quipped, “the slamming door heard round the world.”

Which brings us back to the Onion. One natural response to their headline—“Teenage Girl Blossoming into Beautiful Object”—would be: how depressing to think how little has changed; how highly we still value a woman’s beauty over her heart, soul and brain. Yes, but: I suspect the Onion writers are pretty young. And, like Ibsen did more than a century ago, they’re looking at what’s all around them and finding a way to make people think about it.

In Ibsen’s day, an Onion-style satire on women’s objectification might not have worked at all. People wouldn’t have gotten the joke. Now, thankfully, we do. Which makes us wince all the more. Which is a good thing.

Don’t miss the Restless Critic’s take on Michael Haneke’s difficult, remarkable Amour. 

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Beyond Binders

This fall, I have had the good fortune to meet many memorable women. I met a physicist and computer science expert from the National Institutes of Health. I met an artist who transforms scientific data into stunning, wall-sized murals. I met a teacher librarian who has turned a cramped high school library in Yakima into the busy, beating heart of the building.  I met a professor of Fine Arts and Engineering who has started an Art and Ecology program at her university. And a young woman who moved from Texas to Seattle with two suitcases to her name and is now a successful copywriter by day and writer of fiction and memoir by night. And a Somali immigrant, who brings her oldest daughter, a kindergartener, into our neighborhood tutoring center because she wants her to succeed.

I am lucky to have the kind of life in which these kinds of encounters are possible.  I wish more men did. I wish it wasn’t so hard for guys like Mitt Romney to get out of their mostly-male bubble and meet the dynamic women that are everywhere.

I want to tread carefully here, because I realize I’m entering a minefield of stereotypes just waiting for me to take a wrong step.  So maybe I’ll try the most positive route through this hazardous terrain: the route of utopian vision. Of “What if?”

What if we lived in a world where everyone, regardless of gender, had time in their work week to volunteer for two hours? Tutoring the mostly African immigrant children I help with homework at the neighborhood center is often the most challenging, rewarding, stereotype-busting two hours of my week. I’m lucky to have the flexibility to do it. I wish more people did.

What if we lived in world where the STEM disciplines—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—were as highly valued as they should be, but NOT at the expense of, or segregation from, the arts and humanities, from which they have so much to gain? I recently got to be part of a panel of artists at a conference on scientific visualization. I thought it would be way outside my comfort zone. But I was thrilled to hear about collaborations taking place across the great divide between art and science and I was humbled to meet the men and women who are breaking these new trails.

What if all our schools could keep their libraries open into the evening, with staff and volunteers present to help students learn how to navigate the new world of Internet-based research?  Think of the future scientists, writers and artists we could nurture.

What if we lived in a world where the love of learning, thinking and creativity was valued more greatly, or even as greatly, as money, power, prestige? In what different ways might children flourish in such a world?

It just might be a world in which we don’t have to offer Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” for consideration for government appointments. A world where we’ve moved beyond binders. Beyond the strict boundaries that keep us from knowing each other.

If scientists can work with artists, if libraries and tutoring centers can stay open, if young men and women believe they can create lives that blend making a living and making art—then surely such a world beyond binders is possible.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.




By the time you read this, we will have survived the third and final debate and we’ll be in the final countdown to Election Day. But I can’t help it, people: I’m still shaking my head over Mitt Romney and his binders full of women. Of course I am thankful, along with so many voters, for the comedy it inspired. Yet at the same time, I’m saddened by what it says about how far we women have really NOT come since Virginia Slims launched its 1968 ad campaign with the catchy tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Funny how that particular jingle should spring to mind, with its dark double message: hey women, now that you’re so liberated, you too can smoke all you want and die of lung cancer, just like men!

When Mitt said it—it being, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of — of women”—you could feel a collective squirm go through the Columbia City Theater, where I was watching the debate with friends. The squirm was followed by a collective head-scratch: did he really just say that? We all murmured. What century is this?

You could argue that Mitt “meant well.” But what does it mean, to “mean well?” In this case, “meaning well” meant wanting to appear to be someone other than who he is: a guy, surrounded by guys, who—as the Boston Phoenix newspaper reminded us, contrary to the way he tried to phrase it in the debate—did not actually notice the paucity of women in his gubernatorial administration until a coalition of Massachusetts women’s groups brought it to his attention. They offered the binders not in the sort of distasteful, mail-order bride way it sounded coming from the candidate, but in a proactive, let us educate you kind of way: as in, we want to introduce you to some incredibly qualified candidates for state office who have mysteriously been overlooked.

But then Mitt made it worse, by talking about how he generously allows his chief of staff to go home to her family at night: as if only mothers, not fathers, would want or need such an allowance. As if: you’ve come a long way, baby—but hiring you is still way different than hiring a man.

It all felt so… Ron and Nancy. So George and Laura. So Tarzan and Jane. It kind of made me want to sneak a cigarette.

But only for an instant. Because that whole notion—that to succeed as a woman, you have to make it on your merits into a special binder, rather than, say, play racquetball with the right people—that’s exactly the kind of stress that made women want to smoke back in the Virginia Slims day. It’s the double standard we restless nesters want to believe will not be the working-world norm for our daughters. And so when Mitt brings it up, like it was a good thing—hey, we were an all-guy team but then I asked for the binders full of women, wasn’t that great!—it made us all squirm because it sounded like the kind of thing you’d expect, maybe, a 75 or 85 year old man to say. Not a 65 year old aging Boomer, who is running for president in a century that is supposed to be new. But then again, this is a candidate  who did not support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Which places him pretty firmly in the company of men who have NOT come a long way, and don’t plan to anytime soon.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Raised to Please

We are raised to please. We are raised to attract. We are raised to decorate, divert and delight. We are raised to invite attention, not to seek it. To never, ever risk rejection.

And when I say we, of whom do I speak? It must be a group known to include me. Might it be… people over 50? Seattleites? Speakers of English?

Of course not. You know who I’m talking about. Women.

And what, you might ask, is so wrong with being raised to please?

Nothing at all, if you are born and remain a lovely-to-look-at, ornamental sort of a woman. Nothing at all, if ornamenting the world brings you great joy.

But what if what you long to do is build tall buildings? Play basketball? Conduct high-risk scientific research? Or—in my case—write? And in order to achieve that writing dream, you have to lob your precious words out into the world so they can be rejected over and over and over again until at last, you get lucky and what you’ve written is accepted and printed? Briefly, you are filled with joy—until your freshly published words are actually read. And not everyone likes them. And you want to die because you have displeased a few people.

Men, on the other hand, are raised to risk rejection or die trying. They’re raised to understand for every ten girls they ask out, one might say yes and hey, that’s great! They grow up understanding they won’t get a good job unless they apply for 100. They learn young: licking wounds is wasting time.

Meanwhile, women grow up learning: don’t ask for what you want. Be patient, pretty, good, do everything right—and someone, someday, will read your mind.

Am I oversimplifying? Sure. But take a look at the annual count by the literary nonprofit VIDA of female versus male writers published in prestigious magazines—Atlantic, New Yorker, Harpers, etcetera.  Diet-sized wedges of each pie chart represent articles written by women. I don’t think the problem is that women don’t write great nonfiction.  Or they don’t think their writing is good enough. I think women writers don’t submit their work because they fear rejection. Or, like me, they’ve been rejected half a dozen times and they can’t stand the pain.

As a longtime documentary filmmaker, I’ve been rejected by film festivals dozens of times.  But here’s the difference: I make films with my husband. Somehow, that helps, because even though I feel every rejection as a personal rejection of me, he knows how to move on and he tugs me along with him. Writing nonfiction for print publications is a newer pursuit for me and I’m flying solo.

My writer friend Isla is the one who got me thinking about this Curse of the Good Girl who internalizes early the paramount importance of pleasing. Isla is 20 years younger than I am. My daughter, 22 and a working journalist, gets it too.

The VIDA count is a vivid reminder, to writers like Isla, my daughter and me, that there’s more at stake here than our self-esteem. We need to keep submitting our work, and we need to get really good at handling rejection, because collectively, we still have a lot of catching up to do.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Across the Fence

  Just as we have Mad Men to thank for reminding us of how casually men in power exuded sexism, racism, classism, anti-semitism and homophobia fifty years ago, now we have Rush Limbaugh to thank for reminding us: we still have a lot of work to do. But I’m thankful to Limbaugh.  Really. Because that outrageous statement he made weeks ago—“If we’re gonna pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch”—well, it’s just not going away. And that may be bad for his show’s ad revenues, but in terms of getting people talking? It is good. Tricky, risky, sometimes inflammatory. But good.

Have you seen that MoveOn ad in which five women repeat, simply and straight to the camera, Limbaugh’s notorious words, along with several statements by Rick Santorum and other conservatives regarding contraception? It’s in my email inbox and I expect it’ll show up a few more times, right along with the news about how our state’s proposed budget calls for cuts in funding for contraception and counseling.  Also in the in-box: my friend Liza Bean’s insightful blog post about why conservative women believe liberal women don’t like them.

There’s a conversation going on here. People are talking across the fence. The MoveOn ad is getting buzz not just on MSNBC, but on Fox News, where two Republican commentators, both women, tried in vain to explain to Bill O’Reilly why this all matters: why women across the political spectrum reacted with revulsion to, for example, Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s statement that “a woman impregnated thru rape should accept that horribly created gift. The gift of human life.”

Meanwhile, liberal blogger Liza and her conservative mom are finally having that long-avoided conversation about Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin. Liza’s mom thinks liberal women only want to see liberal women succeed in politics, even though they pay lip service to the notion of diverse views. Liza concedes she may be on to something.

I have to agree. I will never forget the chill I felt when I saw Sarah Palin on TV for the first time, standing next to John McCain, commanding the stage with absolute confidence.

“She’s got the magic,” I thought. “My God, McCain’s going to win and then she’ll run and win and she’ll be our Margaret Thatcher!”

I’ve never been so relieved to be so wrong. And yet what stayed with me were the conversations I had with Republican women who were thrilled by her: by the thought of a woman whose views they shared zooming up the political ladder the way Palin did in 2008.

Ultimately, I believe Palin was a polarizer of women, not a uniter. She did not talk across the fence in 2008, nor has she since, in her role as a TV commentator.

What’s going on now is different. Limbaugh, Santorum and the Virginia and Texas state lawmakers who recently enacted mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds went so far with their intrusive and offensive words that women, whether they call themselves pro-choice or pro-life, had to respond. Had to at least try to talk, like Liza and her mom.

Just as, fifty years ago, women began to look around the Mad Men world and say: excuse me, guys, but what about us? They didn’t all say it in the same way or for the same reasons. But the conversations began. At the water cooler, over martinis or milk and cookies.  Sometimes, across fences: still the hardest place for us to talk.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Thank you, Mary Tyler Moore

“Girl, you’re gonna make it after all.”  Can’t you just picture Mary Tyler Moore, beaming and tossing her beret in the air as the whole world sang along to her theme song every Saturday night?  Thirty-five years ago, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its seven-year run, Moore was a “girl” of forty.  And yet she was every girl.  Every 15 or 25 or 40 year old girl who has ever panicked and thought: who am I without him? Who am I by myself? Can I really make it after all?

Yes, you can, Mary told us. I did, and you can too.

When The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted, she was 33. I was 13. The wacky, cozy world of her first big TV hit, The Dick Van Dyke Show, was so over, for both of us. My parents had just divorced. Moore’s character, Mary Richards, was divorced. Women like my mom and Mary were suddenly popping up everywhere, trying to make it on their own. Meanwhile, girls like me were letting go of our babyish fantasies involving princes, castles, Barbie and Ken. But we were uneasy about where to take our daydreams next.  I wasn’t old enough, yet, to embrace what Gloria Steinem had to say.

But Mary Tyler Moore? She was so—real. So still wistful and a little shaky about the dream she’d given up, the one involving a NEVER-discussed ex-husband.  So clearly competent yet still lacking the self-confidence to go with it.  So easily rattled by the men who held power in her life: her boss, played by Ed Asner. The news anchor, Ted Baxter.  The clueless guys she dated.

Let’s see: Wistful, shaky, smart but not confident, rattled by men in authority? That pretty much covered my emotional profile as a teenager.

As Mary slowly got the hang of being a single career woman, so did my mom.  Newly divorced at 39, she wasn’t much older than Mary, though her life was pretty different, what with five of her six children still at home. It’s funny, looking back, to realize I didn’t think of my Mom as a Mary type at all, even though she had shiny brown hair and a big smile and a similar brand of no-nonsense spunkiness. But Mom was a mom, which made her not a girl, in my girlish mind. Mary was a grown-up girl. She was what I wanted to be. What all my friends wanted to be: a grown-up girl living in her own apartment, working at a real grown-up job.

At its recent gala, the Screen Actors Guild honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing not only her iconic TV roles but the virtuosity she brought to other roles, like the icy, repressed Beth in the 1980 film Ordinary People. Once again, Moore captured a transitional moment in our social history, portraying a character who, unlike Mary Richards or Mary Tyler Moore, could not and would not change.

When I was in my twenties, I actually had various versions of Mary Richards’ job. For five years, I worked at a Seattle TV station as a newswriter and producer.

Mary was in reruns and I still watched her sometimes, loving the show for the way it poked fun at the world of local TV news. But mostly, I loved it for Mary: the girl who showed us how to make it after all.

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