Recently, after one of my blogs had been published, I asked my mother if she had read it and she replied, “ Yes, and that picture of you is such a good one.” It wasn’t exactly the review I was going for. I had been hoping she might comment on the content, but I understood that felt she was paying me a high compliment. Her generation had been trained to focus on outward appearance and, although we have made some strides in this area, I feel we still have a ways to go.
After one of the early Democratic debates, there was much talk about whether or not Hillary had had plastic surgery. And I’ve noticed that every time Michelle Obama appears in a sleeveless dress, we all mention those toned arms (yes, I admit I have commented as well). We are making these superficial observations about two incredibly well-educated and accomplished women. After the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Carrie Fisher was so vilified for her appearance that she felt compelled to respond (brilliantly, I might add) to the critical and cruel remarks that had been made about her weight and aging. I’m not the world’s greatest authority on Star Wars, but it seemed to me that the whole point of Princess (now General) Leia’s character was her strength, independence and self-assurance. Unfortunately, all many people seem to remember is how she looked in that gold bikini almost forty years ago.
Growing up in a household with a European father and traditional mother who had very conservative notions about the role of women, I had to deal with a lot of gender bias, which was even more apparent because I had an older brother. There was a strong double standard in my house against which I (generally unsuccessfully) tried to fight. Despite the fact that my brother was encouraged to attend a private university, my parents told me I could only apply to a state college. At the time, we were living in a state where the public colleges were not an appealing option for me. I had my mind set on a small liberal arts university with a strong English department. I dug my heels in and, fortunately, my grandmother, who was surprisingly ahead of her time, came to my rescue and offered to help fund my education. For that matter, both my grandmothers were forward-thinking. They were immigrants who came to this country and had to work outside the home to survive and they encouraged me to do great things with my life. But their steps forward were out of necessity, so my mother, who didn’t face the same challenges, was a bit of a step back. Somehow, the generation in between my grandmothers and me fell into the Ozzie and Harriet/Donna Reed mindset.
The way in which we practiced religion also reinforced a tremendous gender bias. We belonged to an orthodox Jewish temple where women were not counted for prayers. I attended Hebrew school but I was not allowed to have a bat mitzvah, although I did listen carefully when my brother studied for his bar mitzvah and memorized most of his Torah portion. After we moved, the only option for us was a conservative temple (for the uninitiated, “conservative” Judaism is about conserving the religion, not a characterization of its thinking). For the first time, I saw women ascend the bima (altar from which prayers are read) and I knew I could never go back. In fact, I now feel completely offended by the religious rules that do not allow women the same rights as men. It has been repeatedly explained to me by orthodox rabbis that a woman’s role is not a lesser one, just different. However, I recall learning that “separate but equal” was a doctrine rejected by our country’s Supreme Court as “inherently unequal” and I reject it as well. How can my fourteen-year-old son be counted for prayers and not me?
The funny thing is I’m not really a feminist. I chose to stay home and raise my boys full time while my husband worked insane hours building his career. But the key word in that last sentence is chose. I don’t feel my education was wasted–my English degree has afforded me an excellent vocabulary, which I can use to yell at my kids with erudition and I am amazing at Words With Friends. If I had been told I wasn’t allowed to work, I probably would have balked and insisted on getting a paying job (maybe I see where my sons get their contrary natures). But I am proud of the job I have done with my kids and, at this point in the program, am happy to be able to carve out a little time for my writing and myself.
I hope the next time one of my blogs is published, I will be only be judged by the content of that blog and not the headshot that accompanies it (to paraphrase the great leader we honor this week). And I will work on looking past toned arms and unwrinkled faces as well.