Memory Lane Is Gendered

My husband and I were kibitzing with Bill Brooks a few days ago. Bill was previously the editor of several small-town newspapers in Indiana, and in semi-retirement, he publishes the Urban Times, an outgrowth of several urban neighborhood newsletters. He mentioned that he’s planning to run a feature with answers to a question he intends to put to readers who are long-time residents of the city: What do you miss about Indianapolis that was once here but is now gone?

My husband (whose memory for such things is much better than mine) immediately responded by naming a couple of bygone festivals and civic celebrations. I was unable to come up with anything I truly miss, and later in the day, I brooded a bit about that inability. Granted, I tend to live in the present–but then I also realized that my lack of nostalgia is significantly attached to my gender.

To be blunt, it’s a lot easier being female today than it used to be–in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Not perfect–that “glass ceiling” may be cracked, but it’s still there–but immensely improved. A few examples from my long-ago youth:

When I went to college, I wanted to major in liberal arts, but my father insisted that I get a teaching degree, because if my eventual husband died, I would need something to fall back on. At the time, educated women were secretaries, teachers or nurses; I couldn’t type and the sight of blood made me queasy. Ergo! I’d teach.

I began my adult work life as a high school English teacher. When I became pregnant with my first child, however, I could no longer teach—Even though I was married, those days, once women teachers or librarians “showed,” we could no longer be in the classroom.

I went to law school when I was 30 and had three small children. There were very few women in law school then, and my most important epiphany revolved around the need for potty parity, since the few women’s restrooms in the relatively new building had been included–and located– to accommodate the secretarial staff.

After graduating law school, I was the first female lawyer hired at one of Indianapolis’ then “big three” law firms. To give you a flavor of the times, serial interviews with prospective associates were conducted by several of the partners, and I was in conversation with two who were being very careful not to ask improper questions (this was barely ten years after creation of the EEOC). Since I had three children, I thought it reasonable to volunteer my childcare arrangements. One of the partners was so obviously relieved that I wasn’t acting like a bra-burning radical feminist, he blurted out: “It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with being a woman. We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

In 1977, Bill Hudnut asked me to take charge of the City’s legal department. I was the first woman to be Corporation Counsel in Indianapolis, and at the time, Indianapolis had two newspapers. The afternoon paper, the Indianapolis News, had a front-page “gossip” blurb.  I still recall its juicy little item after my appointment was announced: “What high-ranking city official appointed his most recent honey to a prominent position…” Apparently, it was inconceivable that I’d been appointed because I was a decent lawyer, or because I represented a constituency Bill was reaching out to.

I could spend all day adding to this litany, but the bottom line is: things are better for women now. Not perfect, but much, much better.

My female students–even those who didn’t consider themselves feminists–were appalled at suggestions that they should expect  to be offered lower pay than their male classmates for the same positions. My granddaughters are incredulous when I tell them these stories.

I’m sure that, with some thought, I’ll be able to answer Bill Brooks’ question–able to come up with the names of retail establishments or festivals or restaurants that I miss. (To  be honest, what I really miss is the naïveté and uncomplicated patriotism that was facilitated by what I now know was my very incomplete understanding of American history.)

Overall, however, I’ll take today. Given the lunacy and ferocity of the backlash–the furious efforts to roll back the changes that a lot of us celebrate– I do worry quite a lot about tomorrow.


Gender Matters

Back in 1980, when Republicans were members of a political party and not a religion, I was the Republican candidate for Congress from Indiana’s (then) eleventh district. In 1980, it was still comparatively unusual for either party to run a woman, and I had plenty of opportunity to grit my teeth over the tendency of reporters to focus on what I was wearing rather than what I was saying. My Washington-based consultant advised me to “look tough,” so that my gender would not be read as feminine softness–advice that, in retrospect, probably just made me look unpleasant.

In the 30+ years since that campaign, women have arguably made considerable progress–but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think  sexism still frames political contests. Gender bias remains, but it manifests itself more subtly. In 2008, Sarah Palin tried to sell herself as a conservative version of a feminist, but that claim rang hollow to real feminists for many reasons, not the least of which was that much of her support was based upon her undeniable good looks. I am firmly of the opinion that neither Palin nor Bachmann would have achieved political prominence had they looked like Janet Reno.

Which brings me to an intriguing, if depressing, study recently reported in the Journal of Religion and Politics.

The authors were investigating the oft-noted tendency of today’s religiously conservative candidates to use “dog whistles”–phrases that don’t register with the more secular among us, but that signal to the extremely religious that the candidate is one of them. (George W. Bush was a master at this.) They found, however, that this tactic was more effective when used by male candidates that when it was used by females.  As the authors noted, “The code functioned as a highly sophisticated, closed-circuit cue for Evangelicals regarding male candidate acceptability…the code does not work in the same way for female candidates.” While reluctant to draw conclusions, they raise a pertinent question: “What if the Republican ‘advantage’ in using religious appeals is based on an inherent characteristic–gender–of those making the appeals?”

Whatever the answer to that question, if we have learned anything about politics during the past decade, it is that–for good or ill–race, gender, religion and sexual orientation continue to frame our responses to those who run for office.