Women’s rights

My Personal Journey

I know why my Grandmother drank gin at breakfast

It is day 60 of our shelter in place. Everything seems calm in Cupertino, California. Companies have quickly and successfully transitioned to working from home. Jack Dorsey has said Twitter employees can work from home forever, friends are posting gorgeous pictures of their new lives on Facebook and for the first time in more than 10 years there is very little traffic on 101 at 5pm.

But inside the California ranch houses there is a seething going on, a desperation at the role we find ourselves in in the pandemic. In this case “we” is professional, smart women. Women who have careers; women who have had the privilege of help in the house and have not cleaned a toilet in 25 years; women who like to stimulate their brains with hard problems to solve and challenging debates. Women who are used to being respected for the work that they do.

Women still do the majority of the housework but this work is not respected. And it is repetitive and never ending. It’s like Groundhog Day except I am not learning to speak French or do ice sculptures because I either don’t have time or simply can’t concentrate long enough in the breaks I have. Every day it falls on women, as I am seeing with my girlfriends, to keep the house running, fed and clean. As Eleanor Margolis says in her Guardian piece “Stop this retro nonsense about lockdown being a return to domestic bliss for women.” It isn’t, it is return to the stifling life so many women led before emancipation. Even though some men are posting on Instagram as they step up and help around the house (why weren’t they before?) it is a rare man that will clean a toilet unless he’s paid to do it.

My grandmother was a smart woman. She went to Cambridge University, studied biology and graduated before women were allowed to formally receive a degree. But then she married and moved to India as a wife of the British Raj. She was never able to work but volunteered for local women in what is now Pakistan. By the time I knew her in England she volunteered as a local magistrate but spent much of her time cooking, cleaning, looking after my grandfather, drinking gin, angry and unfulfilled.

I understand why. I, like her, was not cut out to work on the household day in and day out. I respect my friends who chose to stay home to raise their children, but I did not. I chose a career and to hire people to help me with the house and the children. But now, with the arrival of Covid-19, I live in a world where every day I do the same thing. Get up, make bread, make coffee, empty the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, run laundry, cook, clean the kitchen and, once a week, shop and clean the house or cajole young adults into helping me clean the house. And keep my professional responsibilities going on Zoom while competing for bandwidth with the same young adults who are working from home. Zoom goes up and down; bandwidth comes and goes like my patience.

I have no real complaints. We have food, a roof over our heads, an income, a vegetable garden and our family is healthy. I know we are lucky. But even knowing that, the loss of my old life of stimulating conversations, travel to meet with interesting people in exciting places, dinner with friends and most importantly the freedom of being my own master preys on me. And while I don’t typically pour my first glass of wine until 6pm I understand why some days my grandmother didn’t wait and numbed herself earlier in the day. 

I have always known I was fortunate to be born into a generation where women can have a career outside the home. Now I feel it more than ever deep in my tired bones.

Photo: Paris © 2019 Penny Herscher


How Smith College Turned Christine Lagarde’s Cancellation Into a Win for Women’s Voices

Ruth Simmons gave a brilliant, beautiful and moving commencement address
at Smith College, MA on Sunday. Emotional to be back at Smith where she
was previously president, she spoke to the students about free speech,
about the importance of “tak[ing] good care of your voice” and the power
of the opinions of people who disagree with you.

Her perspective
is one of a child growing up in the South: “My coming of age was marred
by the wide acceptance of the violent suppression of speech,” she said.
“No forums of open expression existed for me in the Jim Crow south of
my early youth. Once you have tasted the bitterness and brutality of
being silenced in this way, it is easy to recognize the danger of
undermining free speech.”

But what made her speech so perfect for
that day was a disappointing event that had happened earlier. A small
group of Smith students (less than 500) signed a petition objecting to
Christine Lagarde as their commencement speaker because of objections to
the policies of the IMF. Christine is the first female leader of the
IMF, and a powerful role model of how a woman can change the world, so
perfect for Smith College but, given the controversy, she withdrew, as
Condoleeza Rice had withdrawn from giving the commencement address at Rutgers a few weeks earlier.

Ruth spoke about the importance of allowing, and hearing, opposing
points of view. How when you speak out, and someone disagrees with you,
and then you stand up your voice is stronger. How disagreement is a key
part of learning, and freedom, and something we must all protect. And
so, how it was limiting free speech to reject Christine Lagarde. The
Smith faculty agreed in a HuffPost article
and Smith’s president, Kathy McCartney, told the students “Those who
objected will be satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect.
But at what cost to Smith College?”

It is still so new that we,
as women, have a strong voice. It needs to be heard and not suppressed,
no matter how much we may disagree with some of the voices. The movement
to suppress women’s voices is alive and strong. In radical Islam in
Nigeria, in attacks on Hillary Clinton (she’ll be a grandmother — she
can’t be president), in the relentless drive to reverse our rights to
our own bodies.

Nora Ephron spoke so eloquently about this in her commencement address at Wellesley in 1996 (as Jessica Goldstein reminds us here).
Every attack on our path to leadership, and our voices, is an attack on
women’s progress to equality. To reach the goal of equal opportunity
regardless of our gender (or color, or sexual orientation) we must all
vigorously pursue equal pay (Jill Abramson stood up and was fired),
equal seats at corporate decision making bodies (less than 17 percent of board seats are held by women in the U.S.), equal representation in our governments (still only 20 percent of the U.S. senate and 18 percent of the house are women).

have a long way to go. But Ruth Simmons strengthened Christine
Lagarde’s voice on Sunday by reminding the audience of parents (me
included), students and faculty, with clarity and passion, that we must
speak, and protect our right to speak, and just as importantly protect
the right of those who disagree with us to speak, so we can move forward
to a world of learning and equality of opportunity.

Posted on the Huffington Post earlier today