Too often, sexism is invisible to us, whether it’s too geographically distant or we’ve just become immune to witnessing women treated like objects instead of like humans. In 2010, naming the enemy is half the battle.
In her new book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert used a Rumpelstiltskin simile applicable here. The story of Rumpelstiltskin is about a girl forced into slavery; she must spin straw into gold. She will only be freed when she can name one of her captors. When she discovers his name and calls it out, he loses all his power and must set her free. Gilbert wrote, “Some fears can be vanquished, Rumpelstiltskin-like, only by uncovering their hidden, secret names.”
I’ve launched The Rumpelstiltskin Campaign: sEXISTs EXIST. Post news about sexism, when and where you see it, on ReelGirl. Photos welcome. The campaign won’t end sexism, but it’s a crucial step towards setting us free.
Email me your info if you want stickers or T-shirts. T-shirts come in all sizes and baby dolls $25 each. A percentage of proceeds goes to The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, an organization I cofounded to train young women to be leaders and change agents.
Pulitzer Prize winning author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Sheryl WuDunn, gave a free talk at the Palace of Fine Arts Monday night, telling the audience the best way to stop poverty and end terrorism worldwide is to achieve gender equality. WuDunn argued that gender equality is the most important struggle of this century, and that the key to world economic progress is unlocking women’s potential.
Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Half The Sky
WuDunn said that the paramount moral challenge of the 19th Century was slavery, in the 20th, totalitarianism, and in the 21st century, it’s gender quality.
WuDunn told the audience we are wasting half our resources by failing to educate and honor women. After her talk, she told me that she was inspired to write her book, because of all the missing women worldwide; they’d just vanished. No one had written about a book about them.
At the beginning of her talk, WuDunn asked the audience: Are there more women or men in the world?
About 98% of the audience (including me) believed there were more women in the world. We knew women generally lived longer than men. But this statistic only holds true in the developed world. In the developing world, women are vastly outnumbered.
Approximately 60 – 100 million women have gone missing.
Women die due to poor health care; they die in childbirth; they die from violence by men; girls are kidnapped into sex trafficking, never surfacing again, and female fetuses are aborted.
I’ve been a fan of WuDunn and her husband/ co-author/ New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ever since Half the Sky came out. About a year ago, the book was featured as the cover story of the New York Times Magazine. With the publication of this one book, national attention began to shift back to feminism and gender equality, bringing a renewed awareness in the media and in the public about the oppression of women worldwide and how that oppression affects and limits us all.
The very basis of the Taliban, of course, is oppression against women. While there was worldwide outrage about Apartheid in South Afriica years ago, no one seemed to care much about the gender crimes of the Taliban until 9-11. Even since 9-11, it’s been a challenge to keep the focus on educating women, in Afghanistan and all over the world.
WuDunn laid out a simple path to creating a better, safer, stronger world, as logical as a tenth grade geometry proof:
Overpopulation is the biggest indicator of poverty. When women are educated, they marry later and have fewer children, and they are more likely to make sure these children are educated.
WuDunn said governments must make it their highest priority to educate women.
WuDunn was asked by an audience member: Why is now women’s time?
She referred again to the missing women, then adding “Brawn used to matter.” In agricultural and farming societies, physical strength was seen as crucial to success. Now we’ve entered a period of technology and brain power, and its the opportunity for women to get ahead.
WuDunn argues again and again that the best way to bring about change is by investing in women. We’re losing our most valuable resource. When people in the audience asked what they could do to help women worldwide, WuDunn said give money to support women’s organizations. She said she loves Doctors Without Borders but we need to create Bankers without Borders, Lawyers Without Borders. We must rally our governments to commit to educating women.
Kavita Ramdas, CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women, was also speaking. The Global Fund is the world’s largest grantmaking foundation focused exclusively on international womens’s human rights. Ramdas told the audience. “If you can’t help women in the Sahara, help women in East Palo Alto. Here in the United States, 70% of those in poverty are women.”
Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of Global Fund for Women
Listening to the talk, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a horrible example my home state of California, in my home country of the United States, sets with its bankrupt public educational system. How can we insist countries of the world educate women when we are are so substandard at home?
When a male high school student in the audience asked Ramdas what he could do to help women worldwide, she said, “I have a sixteen year old daughter. I worry about her. Set an example in how you treat your peers. Don’t use the words bitch and whore.”
The talk was fascinating, listening to WuDunn and Ramdas circle the globe and came back home to the Bay Area. They highlighted again and again, that until conditions improve for women, humans will not reach anything close to our potential.
I blogged about this a couple days ago. Here are some sad stats about the lack of women in America’s leadership positions. More women are going to law school but they’re not becoming law partners; they’re in medical school but they’re not chief surgeons. Women in America get paid less for doing the same work as men, and the Equal Rights Amendment was never passed in this country. It’s worldwide problem, our worst problem. We need to recognize it exists, identify it and then eradicate it everywhere. Order sEXISTs stickers and T-shirts here, one dollar from every item sold goes to the Woodull Institute for Ethical Leadership.
Sheryl WuDunn’s talk was free to the public because it was sponsored by Facing History and the Allstate Foundation.
Facing History is an international educational and professional development nonprofit organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives.
The Allstate Foundation partners with non-profit organziations and community initiatives that promote safe and vital communties, tolerance, diversity, and economic empowerment.
At first, it sounds empowering, it’s a woman to woman CEO winning relay. How often does that happen? Well, Never! Fortune.com reports:
Anne Mulcahy, who last decade turned Xerox around and last year turned over the CEO reins, today gave up the chairman title to Ursula Burns, her CEO successor. It’s all quite historic since Burns is the Fortune 500’s first black female CEO. Theirs was the first-ever woman-to-woman CEO hand-off in the ranks of America’s largest corporations.
The bummer is, of course, the female CEO switcheroo keeps the gender CEO stats of Fortune 500 companies in their exact same pathetic state at 3% female. Robin Marty reports on www.Care2.com:
Women CEOs lead in only 15 of the 500 companies, or 3 percent. Even worse, there was no gain in female leadership since last year; for every woman who entered the list, another was lost.
Here are some facts about American women, who make up 52% of citizens in the country of the free and the brave and 46.5% of our labor force.
Women hold 15.2% of seats on the boards of Fortune 500 companies.
Women are 19% of partners in law firms.
Women represent 17% of the United States Congress.
Throughout our history only three women have held the office of Supreme Court Justice.
There are only seven female governors.
Women make up 14% of all guest appearances on the influential Sunday television talk shows; among repeat guests, only 7% are women.
Only 15% of the authors on the The New York Times best seller list for nonfiction are women.
Only about 20% of op-eds in America’s newspapers are by women.
In Hollywood, women make up:
8% of all writers
17% of all executive producers
23% of all producers
18% of all editors
2% of all cinematographers
I’m so tired of people acting as if we live in some postfeminist era, as if we’ve achieved equality, and everything is groovy now.
Sadly, people take sexism even less seriously than racism, often attributing gender crimes to cultural beliefs instead of the political practices they are. When I was in college and everyone was protesting aparthied in South Africa in the quad, in my sociology class next door I was learning that female gender mutilation was just fine because that’s “their culture.” Not only that but “women do it to each other” so it can’t really be sexist. It took me years to undo the relative ethics dogma I learned in my college education in early the nineties.
When I was producing talk radio programs later in that same decade, I wanted the liberal talk show host I worked with to discuss the Taliban. I’d tell him: “It’s gender aparthieid. The laws are completely different for women and men and nobody seems to care at all.”
At that time, one of the only vocal, public figures in America even speaking about the Taliban was Mavis Leno, Jay Leno’s wife. I’m serious. Mavis Leno. That’s how I found out about about the slavery of women across the world, not through my president, other politicians, the New York Times, campus protests or liberal talk show hosts like the one I worked for. When I insisted to the host the Taliban mattered, that you can’t isolate those kinds of sick beliefs, he said, “Come on, how does the Taliban affect people in the Bay Area?”
Too often, sexism today is invisible to us, whether it’s too geographically distant or we’ve just become immune to witnessing women treated like objects instead of like humans. In 2010, just naming the enemy, calling it out, seems to be half the battle.
In her new book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s used a Rumpelstiltskin simile which is totally applicable here. Rumpelstiltskin is, of course, the story about a girl forced into slavery, spinning straw into gold. She will only be freed when she can name one of her captors. When she discovers his name and calls it out, he loses his power and sets her free. Gilbert wrote, “Some fears can be vanquished, Rumpelstiltskin-like, only by uncovering their hidden, secret names.”
So today, I’m launching The Rumpelstiltskin campaign: sEXISTs EXIST. Post it where you see it on ReelGirl. Photos welcome. Stickers and signs are here. Logo needed. It won’t end sexism but at least it’s a step towards setting us free.
Lauren, a nice Jewish girl from Jersey, drops out of NYU to pursue her dreams of stardom. To pay her New York rent, she supplements her income with stripping and then gets involved in prostitution via an expensive escort service. Eventually, at eighteen years old, she’s invited to travel to Brunei, as a guest of the Sultan, to spice up his parties. No one tells her exactly how much she’ll get paid for her services: “Don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed.”
For those who don’t know (as I didn’t) where or what Brunei is, Lauren writes it’s
a Malay Muslim monarchy located North of Borneo. Independent from England since 1984, Brunei still retains strong cultural and diplomatic ties with the Queen. At that time, the Sultan of Brunei was, thanks to oil and investments, the richest man on the planet.
There’s more than a few memoirs and polemics about sex work out there, but Lauren’s book is unique. In part, just the location makes it fascinating, traveling to a palace in Southeast Asia and meeting the exotic men and women who inhabit it– it’s like The Other Boleyn Girl meets “The Hills” but much better writing than either. (Yes, the “The Hills” is scripted.)
There’s an on-going debate in Third and Fourth wave feminism about sex work, whether it’s empowering or degrading for women. Lauren’s book doesn’t preach or pick a side, just describing her experience in a brutally honest and insightful way. A woman telling the truth about her sexual life like this is rare and revolutionary.
“To those who haven’t profited financially from their sexuality, those of us who have often inspired an extreme range of emotions: Why would we take off our clothes for money? What makes us take the initial plunge? What makes one financially strapped girl into a hooker and another into a Denny’s waitress and another into a med student? You want to connect the dots. You all want reassurance that it won’t be your daughter up there on the pole. Shitty relationship with my father, low self esteem, astrologically inevitable craving for adventure, dreams of stardom, history of depression and anxiety, tendency towards substance abuse- put it all in a cauldron and cook and the ideal sex worked emerges, dripping and gleaming and whole.
Lauren’s writing about her family is also eloquent and excruciating. Before her decision to leave home, she’s rude to her mother, ignoring her when she enters the house. Her mom asks if she’s on drugs and her father flies into a rage, calling her an ungrateful little bitch.
With every punctuation mark, my father pulled me forward by my throat and them slammed my head back again. When he let go, I crumpled to the floor and pulled my knees to my chest. I called it my civil disobedience trick. I closed my eyes and made myself the tiniest ball. I showed no soft bits.
I worried about Jillian reading the book, her crazy parents and her recklessness. But I knew she’d come out of her story okay because she’s so smart.
Here’s my interview with Some Girls author, Jillian Lauren. Her book just hit the New York Times best-seller list.
You flew by private plane with another “party girl” from Brunei to Kauala Lampur to shop. You were driven to malls accompanied by men who carried suitcases of cash so you could clean out Chanel and Armani. As one of the prince’s favorite girls, there was no limit on what you could spend. But you were never allowed to leave your hotel room except with that entourage for that purpose. It seems claustrophobic and suffocating– just being in Stonestown mall in San Francisco can feel oppressive, and you shopped for over twelve hours. Was it fun? Were you thinking I’ll be able to write about his someday?
I was an avid journaller, but I was definitely never thinking of writing anything beyond that. The shopping was a whirlwind. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was an adrenaline rush. I was excited and yet sort of disgusted with myself at the same time.
You were a guest of the Sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri, though one day, “Robin,” as he was called, shared you with his sibling, sending you to the royal yacht where female kitchen workers, wives, and girlfriends were cruel to you before you met the Sultan.
My survival instinct kicked in. I didn’t have any reason to believe that if I was unwanted, was deemed uninteresting and undesirable, I would be thrown off a cliff or stoned to death in public or shoved in the trunk if a car never to be seen again. Yet I was ready to fight with all I had to stay on the tightrope of royal favor. Maybe there didn’t need to be a threat of corporeal danger; maybe the threat of being unlovable was enough.
In your book you call yourself a “feminist sex activist” but your beliefs and feelings seem more complicated than “sex positive” feminism. Can you elaborate?
I really came into the feminist movement with a very particular viewpoint. And in the early nineties, when I was coming of age, there was this sex-positive explosion in the feminist movement. There was Susie Bright and Carol Queen and a bunch of bright, incredible women who were very vocal about being sex positive. Now I’m friends with a lot of these women. I do absolutely consider myself part of that camp. However, Its not simply about, “Sex work is so empowering, hooray.” Because that’s not how I feel anymore, now that I’m out of it and have lived with the consequences for 20 years. Sex work affected my relationship with my body, with my sexuality.It still has a ripple effect in my life. Taking your clothes off for money is a valid choice. For some women, maybe it’s the only choice. Certainly decriminalizing prostitution and having health care available for sex workers would help. But I don’t think it’s the greatest thing women can do for our souls, for the most part.
Did you make any lasting friendships in Brunei? Do you know what happened to those girls? What did they seem to want out of their experience there?
I’m absolutely still friends with some of the girls and they’ve been very supportive of me telling my story. But I can’t speak for them; I can only speak for myself. It’s up to them to assign meaning to their own experiences.
When you went back to Brunei a second time, you describe having sex with Robin again and this time, the intimacy startles you because you’ve been away and you’ve forgotten to click your “off” switch. For a moment, he’s human you’re shocked by the feel of skin and his hair. Were you able to recover from turning yourself off? Is it something you have control over?
It took me many, many years to come back to my body. The end of the book is really only the beginning of the journey. I still struggle with dissociation but I have tools with which to address it now.
You write a lot in your book about your childhood dreams of stardom, wanting to become a performer, a singer, a dancer. You never mention wanting to grow up and be writer yet that’s what you are now. Was becoming a writer something you ever wanted? The second time you went to Brunei, you brought a computer and exchanged short stories with a friend in New York, though you made fun of those writings. Was this the beginning of your writing career?
I never wanted to be a writer, but ironically writing was the thing I was generally doing the most of. I’ve kept journals since I was probably around eight or nine. Brunei was the place where I unknowingly started to develop a daily writing practice and that practice has been the most important thing to my writing career. So in a way, I guess my career did start in Brunei.
What happened in the years after Brunei, before you got married? Did you stay involved in sex work?
I was still involved in sex work for a while on and off until a terrible substance abuse problem pretty much made it impossible for me to do anything else. It wasn’t until I got sober that I met my husband and my life started to resemble the life I have now.
How did you make the transition into married life and motherhood?
I made the transition into marriage and motherhood not by any one big choice but with a series of small daily decisions through which I learned to take better care of myself and the people I love.
Did you know you wanted to marry your husband? What made him different than the other men? Was it the right time?
My husband is that rarest of things…he’s a truly good man. Besides being cute and funny and a great musician and all that other stuff. I knew almost immediately that I was going to marry him.
Your parents do not come off well in the book– your father is abusive and your mother neglectful. What is your relationship like with your parents now?
I don’t think my parents come off badly. I think they come off as complicated. I tried to the best of my ability to treat their portrayal with compassion and love. They’re still very upset about the book but I have faith that we’ll work it out. We’ve been through worse.
What is your new book, Pretty, about?
Pretty is a girl who survived a horrific car accident that killed her boyfriend and is serving out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house, while attempting to complete her last two weeks of vocational-rehab cosmetology school. It’s about trying to find faith in a world of rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails.
She’s blind folded, her fingers curled in fear, teeth bared, she’s screaming. Just behind her lurks a man’s face, smiling demonically, a deadringer for Jack Nicholson’s grinning psycho-killer in “The Shining.”
The latest horror movie? No, a new ad for Belvedere vodka in Gourmet Magazine’s May pasta issue. There within the pages of recipes for orecchiette with cauliflower or pappardelle with lamb ragu, a rape scene. I count three penises in this ad. Can you find them?
Belvedere Vodka ad from Gourmet Magazine
Tonight, after the kids finally went to bed, I headed for the couch with two very different publications, or so I thought, Us Weekly and Gourmet. Except, I guess, when it comes to reaching out to vodka drinkers, highbrow and lowbrow find common ground. Tossing away the rape scene, I opened Us, and there was a menage a trois, a campaign that might win the tea baggers, sorry, I mean the tea parties, some new followers.
I count three penises in the Skyy ad too, including the bottle itself, and the two cherry stems, one ejaculating, but my husband disagrees, saying no guy wants identify with the cherry stems. For the key to hidden penises in the Belvedere ad click here. (Hint: sexually frustrated.)