Three Ways To Not Solve Sexism, By Former Portfolio EditorS

In Saturday's NY Times, former Portfolio editor Joanne Lipman attempted to critique the stalling of feminism in America. The result was so ham-handed and contradictory, it read like a tutorial on How Not to Talk About Sexism.

Early in the piece, called "The Mismeasure of Woman," Lipman (that's her in the white, lofting her National Magazine Award) writes,

The truth is, women haven't come nearly as far as we would have predicted 25 years ago. Somewhere along the line, especially in recent years, progress for women has stalled. And attitudes have taken a giant leap backward.

Kinda vague, but a worthwhile topic nonetheless. And Lipman does provide some sobering stats, like the fact that, "according to the American Bar Association, women in 2008 made up almost half of all associates, but only 18.3 percent of partners." After that, her essay pretty quickly goes off the rails. Both the NYTPicker and Gawker's Foster Kamer handily detail the ways Lipman's piece makes no sense. Kamer's right that the connection she draws between 9/11, the purported "end of irony" and boobs on the Internet is just bizarre, and the NYTPicker deserves props for pointing out that at least one of her allegations of sexism actually never happened — nobody called her career "leggy." But I'm not particularly interested in picking apart her arguments that sexism still exists — it does, there's better proof of it than appears in Lipman's piece, and there's no need to go into that here. What does bear some critiquing is her prescription for "chang(ing) the conversation," a vague phrase that appears to mean ending not just discrimination in the workplace but also misogyny in media and pop culture. Let's take Lipman's advice point by point (all bold is mine):

1.

First, we can begin by telling girls to have confidence in themselves, to not always feel the need to be the passive "good girl." In my time as an editor, many, many men have come through my door asking for a raise or demanding a promotion. Guess how many women have ever asked me for a promotion?

I'll tell you. Exactly ... zero.

Yes, women could use workplace assertiveness training. And yes, teachers and parents should be raising girls to be active rather than passive, and not to expect "unrealistic perfection in every sphere, from beauty to housekeeping." But why does the conversation about women and career advancement always have to be framed in terms of women asking for raises and promotions? I get that in today's world this is a necessary career skill, but a common critique of America's educational system is that it values obedience and docility, qualities that supposedly come easier to girls than to boys. Parents and other advocates use this as evidence that the school system needs to be changed to be more male-friendly — but women are still expected to change to be more workplace-friendly. I don't believe that boys are naturally less obedient, or women naturally less assertive. But we are still socialized differently, and the culture of many American workplaces is dominated by values developed and perpetuated by men — including self-promotion and aggressiveness. Again, plenty of women have these qualities in spades. But for those who don't, why can't workplace culture change to, say, reward hard work instead of repeated demands? Why do women always have to be the ones to budge?

2.

[H]ave a sense of humor. Believe me, it's needed.

Case in point: My favorite Christmas card ever came from Martha Stewart - while she was in prison in West Virginia. It was beautiful, on heavy paper stock, and showed a gorgeous wreath. And on the inside, homey as could be, it was engraved with holiday wishes from "Martha Stewart, Alderson, West Virginia."

This one is kind of mystifying. I'm not really sure what the Martha Stewart anecdote is supposed to teach us, especially since it's not even that funny. And anyway, can we stop talking about how women need to get a sense of humor? Umpteen discussions of humorless feminazis have led me to believe that the female sense of humor is like the clit — other people may not know how to find it, but we know where the fuck ours is.

And 3.

One final suggestion: don't be afraid to be a girl.

Women do have a different culture from men. And that can give us some tremendous advantages. Women are built to withstand hardship and pain. (Anyone who has given birth knows what I'm talking about.) That's a big benefit at a time like this, with the unemployment rate at 9.8 percent and rising.

Where to even start with this? How about with the fact that Lipman just got finished telling women that they had to learn to operate like men in male workplace culture — but wait, don't forget hold on to a culture of your own! The idea that women need to work "like men" but think/look/act/dress/talk/fuck "like a girl" continues to be a huge obstacle to women's equality, and is part of the demand for "unrealistic perfection" that Lipman decries earlier in the essay. Even leaving this aside, if women's culture means "withstanding hardship and pain," I'm not sure I want it. I don't buy that women are any better at this than men, and this particular type of exceptionalism crosses over pretty quickly into obligation — when women are perceived as "better" at something (i.e. childrearing), it becomes their exclusive duty to take care of it. And I'd rather men share some of the pain of the recession, thanks very much.

Point 3 segues into the assertion that women are better at weathering economic downturn because they define themselves less by their jobs. This may be true in the aggregate — things are changing, but men are still told to identify with their jobs more closely than women are. Of course, women are told that their worth depends on the love of a man, and it's hard to say which cultural message is more damaging. As the recession has shown, jobs can be as fickle as love, and failure at either doesn't make you a bad person. It's worth remembering that strong relationships with friends and family — and also, I'd argue, a connection to a cause outside yourself — can help you weather crises both in love and at work. But framing this as feminine wisdom just keeps the genders firmly in their little work/life boxes, which is exactly the opposite of what the recession should teach us, if it teaches us anything.

I feel a little dirty taking Lipman to task for all this, given that she is genuinely trying to address the problems women face. But we're not going to solve those problems by falling back on the same old stereotypes that created them in the first place. Lipman deserves credit for drawing attention to a pressing issue in a national forum. Maybe now other people will come up with better ways to address it.

The Mismeasure Of Woman [NYT]
Fallen Portfolio Editor Joanne Lipman's Self-Serving Feminism Screed: 9/11, Sissies, Etc. [Gawker]
Whoops! Leggy Former Portfolio Editor Joanne Lipman Makes Mulitple Mistakes In Today's Op-Ed Whine About Women. [The NYTPicker]