Category Archives: Unapologetic Women

This is How a Woman is Erased From Her Job

Photograph by Kate Joyce

A.N. Devers | Longreads | December 2017 | 26 minutes (6,577 words)

This is a story about a woman who was erased from her job as the editor of the most famous literary magazine in America.

In 2011, the New York Times ran Julie Bosman’s energetic and gregarious profile of Lorin Stein, the latest head editor of the famous literary magazine The Paris Review — a position for which she declared, “Bacchanalian nights are practically inscribed in the job description.” The profile portrayed Stein as an intellectual bon vivant who loved parties, party-boy banter, and debating literature as if it were the most important thing in the world.

We know now that Stein, by his own admission, abused his power with women writers and staff of the Paris Review. He has resigned from the literary magazine and from his editor-at-large position at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in response to the board of the Paris Review’s investigation into sexual harassment allegations and his conduct. We also know, by his own admission, that he did not treat literature as the most important thing in the world.

Stein himself admitted it in a cringeworthy 2013 online feature from Refinery29 focused not only on the magazine’s debaucherous parties but also on the interior decor of the Paris Review’s offices and fashion choices of the staffers, who were nearly all women. “It’s always been two things at once,” he says about the Review. “On the one hand, it’s a hyper-sophisticated, modernist, avant-garde magazine. On the other hand, it’s sort of a destination party.”

We now know, between this and Bosman’s piece, even without details of the accusations or reports printed in the Times, or the far worse accusations listed in the “Shitty Media Men” list, that these are glaringly honest portrayals of Stein’s priorities at the helm of the Paris Review. Unfortunately.

Also unfortunate was the error in Bosman’s piece naming Stein as the third editor to “hold the title in the magazine’s 58-year history, and the second to follow George Plimpton, himself a legendary New York social figure.” Stein was actually the fourth. Brigid Hughes, the editor who succeeded George Plimpton, had been inexplicably left out of the profile. She was also not mentioned in the piece announcing Stein’s successorship of Philip Gourevitch; although there was no factual error, she was simply ignored.

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The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy

(Arno Masse/Getty)

Melissa Chadburn | Longreads | December 2017 | 12 minutes (3,090 words)

Last year I worked undercover at a temp agency in Los Angeles. While I took the assignment for an article I was working on, I’d also been unemployed for over a year. It seemed I was in that middling space of over-qualified for entry-level jobs, under-qualified for the jobs I most desired, and aged out or irrelevant as a labor union organizer, where I’d gained the bulk of my work experience.

One altered resume later I joined a temp agency and became the biggest ghost of them all, a member of America’s invisible workforce: people who ship goods for big box stores like Wal-Mart or Marshalls, sort recyclables for Waste Management, fulfill online orders for Nike, bottle rum for Bacardi. I’d found my squad, a cadre of screw-ups, felons, floozies, single moms, the differently abled, students, immigrants, the homeless and hungry, the overqualified and under-qualified, all of us ghosted by the traditional marketplace.

***

There is a story about an invisible hand that guides the free market. There is a story about ghosts. There is a story about a ghost economy. The distance between the main employer, the company that hires the temp agency, and the worker who fulfills these gigs, allows for the same type of casual cruelty that is exchanged between people who meet on online dating apps.

***

Temp jobs began after the second world war, offering work at companies like Kelly Girl, a billion-dollar staffing company based in Michigan, on a short-term basis. Today, the temporary or “on-demand” industry employs over 2.9 million people, over 2 percent of America’s total workforce. As temping has grown, the quality of jobs has deteriorated, and temps now earn 20 to 25 percent less an hour than those who work as direct hires, according to government statistics.

I joined a temp agency and became a member of America’s invisible workforce: people who ship goods for big box stores like Wal-Mart or Marshalls, sort recyclables for Waste Management, fulfill online orders for Nike, bottle rum for Bacardi.

To think of The Ghosted is to think of injustice, a cataloging of fist-fights, tuberculosis, detention centers, scabies, crabs, lice, roaches, hot plates, Section 8 housing, laborers hiding under blankets in the backs of trucks, children lying stiff against the tops of trains, assembly lines in windowless heat-filled rooms — a type of economic violence many consumers try to close their minds to. We do not want to think of them because of what it says about us.

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On the Contentious Borders of the American South

Fifth graders practice before battle during a re-enactment of Picketts Charge at Gettysburg. (Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Scholar and writer Zandria F. Robinson narrates her coming of age in Memphis while examining the food, music, and accents of contemporary “southernness” for Oxford American. During her teenage tears, the author tried to extricate the South from her voice:

At home in my room with the door closed, I practiced aloud, watching the shape of my mouth and the movements of my tongue in the mirror. I repeated my introduction in different accents: regular, valley girl, Southern, newscaster, New Yorker, and British. I still couldn’t hear how I sounded, but I was desperate to discern and attain a standard American accent—that is, one with no regional mark. I was sixteen years old, trying to make it in the world. I didn’t need no Southern accent perched like a twanging bird on top of my being black and a girl and precariously middle class and a precariously middle-class black girl whose hair wouldn’t get straight all the way no matter the strength or caliber of the relaxer. I switched on the television, hoping to find a Cosby Show rerun so I could study Mrs. Clair Huxtable.

But in echoes of Ralph Ellison’s essay on black regionalism from 1948, “Harlem is Nowhere,” Robinson comes to realize that any notion of “southernness” as separate from “Americanness” is false.

Everybody wants to be Southern but don’t nobody want to be Southern, too. To enjoy the culture, to have gentrified ham hocks, but not to deal with ham hocks’ relationship to slavery or slavery’s relationship to the present and future. Folks want the fried chicken and Nashville and trap country music (an actual thing) and sweet tea, but they don’t want Dylan-with-an-extra-“n” Roof or the monstrous spectacle and violence in Charlottesville or the gross neglect and racism after Katrina. No one wants the parts of the South that make America great again. It’s high time we move beyond the border sketched out in John Egerton’s provocative 1974 book, The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America — the South has been everything below the Canadian border all along. If the Black Lives Matter chapters across Canada weigh in, then the South is above the Canadian border, too. Though I’ll admit that “everything below the Arctic circle” doesn’t have a good ring to it.

Things are dirty on both sides of our nation’s internal border, it’s just that some folks won’t confess it. The borders in us and between us seem ever more real, even as we strive to tear them down in service of one sound, one nation, undivided. But one side always wins, and borders are never neutral. I’m just glad that the border wars in me are over for now … I wonder if America ever will be.

 

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A (Tempered) Victory for the Silence-Breakers

Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse and their supporters protest during a #MeToo march in Hollywood, California on November 12, 2017. Several hundred women gathered in front of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood before marching to the CNN building to hold a rally. / AFP PHOTO / Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

The good news: Time magazine has chosen as its Person of the Year, “The Silence Breakers,” recognizing the entire #MeToo movement. The cover story, by Stephanie Zarachek, Eliana Dockterman, and Haley Sweetland Edwards, is a round-up of the experiences of various women and a few men — in entertainment, media, hospitality, activism, and other fields — who had the courage to speak out about the sexual abuse, harassment, and discrimination they endured from men in power. As context, the piece also provides the backstory to the movement.

The bad news: unfortunately, the magazine undermined the impact of its cover story and Person of the Year choice by selecting sexual-predator-in-chief Donald Trump as runner-up.

Like the “problem that has no name,” the disquieting malaise of frustration and repression among postwar wives and homemakers identified by Betty Friedan more than 50 years ago, this moment is born of a very real and potent sense of unrest. Yet it doesn’t have a leader, or a single, unifying tenet. The hashtag #MeToo (swiftly adapted into #BalanceTonPorc, #YoTambien, #Ana_kaman and many others), which to date has provided an umbrella of solidarity for millions of people to come forward with their stories, is part of the picture, but not all of it.

This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries. Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist. They’ve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can’t afford to lose. They’ve had it with the code of going along to get along. They’ve had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women. These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought.

Emboldened by Judd, Rose McGowan and a host of other prominent accusers, women everywhere have begun to speak out about the inappropriate, abusive and in some cases illegal behavior they’ve faced. When multiple harassment claims bring down a charmer like former Today show host Matt Lauer, women who thought they had no recourse see a new, wide-open door. When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.

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Women in the Workplace Are Not Out To Get You

Dolly Parton in "9 to 5" (Apic/Getty Images)

Slate executive editor Allison Benedikt recently wrote an essay about meeting her husband at work, when he was her boss and she was a 23-year-old entry-level fact-checker: “My boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk… My career, at the time, was in his hands.” In the essay, Benedikt worries that the current reckoning around workplace harassment would make relationships like hers impossible. She sympathizes with women who “have written recently that they fear a coming backlash — that one false allegation against a famous man will bring this whole new reality crashing down, or that in the understandable urge to name names, women will be seen as the aggressors, out to tar every man’s reputation.”

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When to (Not) Have Kids

An employee of Planned Parenthood holds a sign about birth control to be displayed on New York City buses, 1967. (H. William Tetlow/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

For a variety of reasons, I don’t have kids. As a woman of a certain age, I’ve been conditioned to believe I must qualify that statement by assuring you it’s not that I’m some kid hater, or that I don’t think babies are cute. They are! (Okay, I also find them to be kind of disgusting.) But among my many reasons for not procreating is that kids grow up to be people, and life for most people on this overcrowded, overheated planet is hard, and getting harder.

Even before Donald Trump took office, I had often wondered: with terrorism, war, and genocide, with climate change rendering Earth increasingly less habitable, how do people feel optimistic enough about the future to bring new people into the world? Since the presidential election, the prospects for humanity seem only more dire. I’m hardly alone in this thinking; I can’t count how many times over the past year I’ve huddled among other non-breeders, wondering along with them in hushed tones, How on earth do people still want to have kids? I was surprised, at this bleak moment in American history, that I hadn’t seen any recent writing on the topic. Was it still too taboo to discuss not making babies, from any angle? Then this past week a few pieces caught my eye.

The one that spoke most directly to my doubts about perpetuating the human race, and its suffering, was “The Case for Not Being Born,” by Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker. Rothman interviews anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar, author of 2006’s Better Never to Have Been: the Harm of Coming Into Existence, and more recently, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. Rothman notes that Benatar makes no bones about his pessimism as it relates to humanity.

People, in short, say that life is good. Benatar believes that they are mistaken. “The quality of human life is, contrary to what many people think, actually quite appalling,” he writes, in “The Human Predicament.” He provides an escalating list of woes, designed to prove that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think. We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort”—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations”—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even “those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.” Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. “People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly. They have high hopes for their children and these are often thwarted when, for example, the children prove to be a disappointment in some way or other. When those close to us suffer, we suffer at the sight of it. When they die, we are bereft.”

While this isn’t how I always look at life, I believe Benatar makes some good points. (Not to mention I’ve endured three of the above mentioned hot flashes while writing this, and one’s optimism does tend to dip in those estrogen-depleted moments.)

Rothman’s piece reminded me of an essay we published here on Longreads a couple of years ago,  “The Answer is Never,” by Sabine Heinlein. Like me, Heinlein often finds herself having to defend her preference for choosing to be childless: “One of the many differences between my husband and me is that he has never been forced to justify why he doesn’t want to have children. I, on the other hand, had to prepare my reasons from an early age.” She keeps a laundry list of reasons handy:

Over the years I tried out various, indisputable explanations: The world is bursting at the seams and there is little hope for the environment. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Earth has lost half of its fauna in the last 40 years alone. The atmosphere is heating up due to greenhouse gases, and we are running out of resources at an alarming speed. Considering these facts, you don’t need an excuse not to have children, you need an excuse to have children! When I mention these statistics to people, they just nod. It’s as if their urge to procreate overrides their knowledge.

Is there any knowledge forbidding enough that it could potentially override such a primordial urge? In a devastating essay at New York magazine, “Every Parent Wants to Protect Their Child. I Never Got the Chance,” Jen Gann attests that there is. Gann writes about raising a son who suffers from cystic fibrosis, an incurable disease that will likely lead to his early death. The midwife practice neglected to warn her that she and her husband were carriers, and Gann writes that she would have chosen to terminate the pregnancy if they had.

The summer after Dudley was born, my sister-in-law came to visit; we were talking in the kitchen while he slept in the other room. “But,” she said, trying to figure out what it would mean to sue over a disease that can’t be prevented or fixed, “if you had known — ” I interrupted her, wanting to rush ahead but promptly bursting into tears when I said it: “There would be no Dudley.” I remember the look that crossed her face, how she nodded slowly and said, twice, “That’s a lot.”

What does it mean to fight for someone when what you’re fighting for is a missed chance at that person’s not existing?

The more I discuss the abortion I didn’t have, the easier that part gets to say aloud: I would have ended the pregnancy. I would have terminated. I would have had an abortion. That’s firmly in the past, and it is how I would have rearranged my actions, given all the information. It’s moving a piece of furniture from one place to another before anything can go wrong, the way we got rid of our wobbly side tables once Dudley learned to walk.

Finally, an essay that took me by surprise was “To Give a Name to It,” by Navneet Alang, at Hazlitt. Alang writes about a name that lingers in his mind: Tasneen, a name he had come up with for a child when he was in a relationship years ago, before the relationship ended, childlessly. It reminded me of the names I long ago came up with for children I might have had — Max and Chloe, after my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother — during my first marriage, long before I learned I couldn’t have kids. This was actually good news, information that allowed me, finally, to feel permitted to override my conditioning and recognize my lack of desire for children, which was a tremendous relief.

Reading Alang’s essay, I realized that although I never brought those two people into the world, I had conceived of them in my mind. And somehow, in some small way, they still live there — two amorphous representatives of a thing called possibility.

A collection of baby names is like a taxonomy of hope, a kind of catechism for future lives scattered over the horizon. Yes, those lists are about the dream of a child to come, but for so many they are about repairing some wound, retrieving what has been lost to the years. All the same, there were certain conversations I could have with friends or the love of my life, and certain ones with family, and somehow they never quite met in the same way, or arrived at the same point. There is a difference between the impulse to name a child after a flapper from the Twenties, or search however futilely for some moniker that will repair historical trauma. Journeys were taken — across newly developed borders, off West in search of a better life, or to a new city for the next phase of a career — and some things have been rent that now cannot quite be stitched back together. One can only ever point one’s gaze toward the future, and project into that unfinished space a hope — that some future child will come and weave in words the thing that will, finally, suture the wound shut. One is forever left with ghosts: a yearning for a mythical wholeness that has slipped irretrievably behind the veil of history.

Yes, I know those ghosts, but not the yearning. I suppose I’m fortunate to not be bothered by either their absence in the physical realm, nor their vague presence somewhere deep in the recesses of my consciousness. Fortunate to no longer care what my lack of yearning might make people think of me.

The Consent of the (Un)governed

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Laurie Penny | Longreads | December 2017 | 15 minutes (3,881 words)

And when you’re a star, they let you do it.
You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy.
You can do anything.
— Donald Trump

What civilization has done to women’s bodies is no different than what
it’s done to the earth, to children, to the sick, to the proletariat;
in short, to everything that isn’t supposed to “talk.”
— Tiqqun, “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl” 

Something has snapped. In early autumn, women and men finally began to come forward to speak, in numbers too big to dismiss, about sexual harassment and abuse. It started in Hollywood. It spread, under the #metoo hashtag — first coined 10 years ago by Tarana Burke — across industries, across oceans, to the very heart of politics. Powerful men are losing their jobs. We’re having consent conversations at the highest levels, with varying degrees of retrospective panic.

Something broke, is breaking still. Not like a glass breaks or like a heart breaks, but like the shell of an egg breaks — inexorably, and from the inside. Something wet and angry is fighting its way out of the dark, and it has claws.

A great many abusers and their allies have begged us to step back and examine the context in which they may or may not have sexually intimidated or physically threatened or forcibly penetrated one or several female irrelevances who have suddenly decided to tell the world their experiences as if they mattered.

Look at the whole picture, these powerful men say. Consider the context. I agree. Context is vital. It is crucial to consider the context in which this all-out uprising against toxic male entitlement is taking place. The context being, of course, a historical moment where it has become obvious that toxic male entitlement is the greatest collective threat to the survival of the species.

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Being a Teenage Girl is Hard

For The California Sunday Magazine‘s “Teens Issue,” Elizabeth Weil wrote about her experience raising a teenage daughter. The piece is annotated by her own 15-year-old daughter, Hannah Duane.

Weil’s piece is poignant, heartfelt, and self-effacing. Duane’s annotations are, in a word, perfect. I say this as someone who was a teenage daughter, and who still is a little bit a teenage girl. (Maybe we are all still a little bit teenage girls, until we have to raise ones of our own? Or maybe forever? I don’t know; I haven’t yet faced the challenge.)

When Weil writes that her husband threw out his back while climbing, “pissing off” Duane, Duane’s strident annotation clarifies:

I was not pissed off. I’ve told my parents this multiple times. Nobody in my family can understand that I can be disappointed but not mad at a particular person. I was in a shitty mood. I have my own thoughts, OK?

PREACH, HANNAH. Grown women on Twitter announced they needed that quote blown up and framed on their walls. We have our own thoughts, OK?

Duane’s annotations made me laugh out loud and gasp in recognition. She annotates her mother’s praise of her climbing to point out that she actually hadn’t succeeded at a specific move she was trying. “It is a weird experience to have your parents praise you for something you believe you failed at,” she writes, pointing out that it “feels like you aren’t being listened to, or maybe you’re not explaining yourself well.”

She thanks her mother for not letting her run into traffic as a toddler, but later responds to her mother’s concern about being able to protect her with, “Parents underestimate kids’ ability to figure out what is right for them.”

My absolute favorite, though, is when Weil writes about the way teens revert to certain toddler behaviors, taking appalling risks and “throwing tantrums at horrible times.” Duane annotates:

I would like to make a defense of teen tantrums. They may be a little much to deal with, but after it’s over, I find that having had a freakout when you least want to can be liberating. You did the thing you dearly wished you would not do, and you lived. There’s comfort in having it out there.

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New York Radical Women and the Limits of Second Wave Feminism

New York Radical Women protest the Miss America Pageant on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, 1969. (Santi Visalli Inc./Archive Photos/Getty Images)

At New York magazine, Joy Press has compiled an oral history of New York Radical Women (NYRW), a collective that existed from 1967 to 1969 and played a large role in defining second wave feminism in the United States. Its founders were generally younger and more radical than the women of the National Organization for Women (NOW), who’d come together in 1966 to address specific legislative failures in Washington, DC. NYRW focused more on elements of the culture that held women back.

The theatrics of the group’s organizing has been seared into the public’s imagination. In 1968, they protested the Miss America pageant by interrupting its telecast, crowning a live sheep on Atlantic City’s boardwalk, throwing objects symbolizing female oppression into a “freedom trash can.” The media called them “bra-burners” for this spectacle, and though nothing caught fire that day, the myth endured.

Along with their image-making, NYRW’s intellectual work, in the form of speeches, essays, pamphlets, and books laid the foundation for women’s studies as an academic discipline. Press explains:

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Assertiveness Training

Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa via AP Images

Susan Sheu | Longreads | December 2017 | 23 minutes (5,862 words)

In the early 1980s, my mother took a class at the local Wisconsin university’s student psychology center called “Assertiveness Training.” She was awakening belatedly to a version of the mind-expanding youth she had missed by marrying and dropping out of college at age 20 in 1967, during the Summer of Love. The class was taught by Dr. B, who told the students to use “I” statements to ask for what they wanted in plain terms during work and family interactions. (“I am unhappy that you said that to me. I feel that I am not heard when I speak to you.”) The idea was to learn to be assertive but not aggressive, to stop being a silently suffering martyr or someone who holds in all their anger and resentment until it boils over into inappropriate and ineffective rage or self-destructive behavior. It goes without saying that the class was all women. As she immersed herself in college again, my mother began to tell me that when I grew up, I could be anything I wanted — a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist. Even though the Equal Rights Amendment had not been ratified, she wanted me to believe that my future was up to me. Perhaps that was one reason she took Assertiveness Training, to be the kind of mother who raised a daughter who wouldn’t need a class like that.

My grandmother was the model of someone who regularly displayed inappropriate anger, someone my mom was trying to avoid becoming. My grandma Violet had once been docile, and my mom believed that she made the rest of us pay for that false submissiveness for the rest of her life. The short version of my grandmother’s story is that she didn’t marry the man she was in love with because he was Catholic and she was Protestant (this was Nebraska, circa 1928); she didn’t attend college despite receiving a debate scholarship because her mother feigned illness to keep her youngest child at home; and she tried to be a good wife in a marriage with a decent, practical man with whom she was not in love. She ran my grandpa’s restaurant while he was serving in World War II, and when he returned, no longer had any day-to-day responsibilities in the business operations.

By the time I knew her, my grandmother was smoking, alternating between Camels and Newports, drinking gin and, if she was feeling moderate, Mogen David wine (“The Jews” drank it. And Sammy Davis, Jr., “that talented Negro,” was a Jew. It had a screw top. And it was sweet.). She told off anyone who stood in her way, and for decades after her death, my mother made me pretend she was still alive, because it was the memory of my grandma’s fiery temper more than the restraining order that kept my father away. My grandma also took Valium, prescribed by the psychiatrist she began seeing shortly before her death in 1978. I was 9 when she died, but I already knew that her outspokenness and self-medication were a great source of shame for my mom and grandpa.

I’ve since come to understand that my grandma had the appropriate response to her circumstances.

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