Saddest for the Girls

There are a lot of reasons to be sad right now. All the progress that’s been made in the last eight years that will be scrapped in the first hundred days. All the hateful new initiatives that will likely affect us for decades to come. But I’m saddest for the girls—one in particular whose Wellesley commencement address showed such promise and energy and strength to carry the weight of the world. And all the girls who saw in her a role model. Yes! There was a future when you studied hard and played all the right games—even into your grandmotherhood. Days ago, it felt nothing could be taken away from us.

The treatment of women worldwide is enigmatic. As far as safety and basic rights, on the books, the US is one of the best places to be. There are a lot of places in our country where a woman can walk around after dark by herself—though not recommended—and remain unscathed. But should we be celebrating that accomplishment when our country comes in at the bottom of a chart such as this one?

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That shows real respect. Of course, there are all sorts of other measures, like how much a woman is paid for doing the same work as a man, whether there’s child care, etc. But if you believe a woman can lead, and you, as a man, can vote for her—that’s the ultimate vote of respect. A frightening number of American men are incapable of this. They pay lip service to social norms—they don’t necessarily behave like they’re in a locker room—but when it’s time to choose a leader they feel emasculated by the idea of a woman leading them. Even one who’s played all their games and won, almost all the way.

I posit that, in countries where women are more present in government, something about their cultures is not forcing women to play it the male way. They’re coming at leadership without battling with themselves over how polite they should be, how deferential to the patriarchy, whether to bake cookies. You can see it in our comedy. I watched Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra again just before the election and thought how she embodies all the mixed messages and complexities of women in American culture. As a child of Asian immigrants, she simultaneously battles and uses to her advantage certain stereotypes. As a professional writer and mother-to-be, she embodies ambition and questions what feminism has done to secretly make women work harder.

I have this scarily clear memory of talking to a strong-willed boy when we were in first grade. We were on the reading carpet, slightly separated from the rest of the class. I told him I wanted to be the first woman on the moon. (It was a quickly passing phase, I’m terrified of heights.) But he snapped back at me with such conviction, “There have already been 13 women on the moon,” that I was taken aback. I knew that wasn’t true. It was 1974 and I had some fuzzy awareness of a woman’s conversation with Walter Cronkite. But I didn’t have data at my fingertips. He had a number, right? Perhaps that meant he knew what he was talking about. Even at six, I had already picked up the social cues that I shouldn’t fight back without facts.

I thought about our conversation when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983.

I’m still thinking about it now.

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