The announcement of the new White House Council on Women and Girls, to be spearheaded by Valerie Jarrett, caught me by surprise. A good surprise, but a surprise nonetheless.
As the co-founder of a nonprofit devoted to helping young women find their place in media and the business world, I've talked about this issue a lot. And what I always come back to is the conviction that what is good for women and girls is good for society as a whole. As Jarrett pointed out in an interview with NPR's Linda Wertheimer this morning, the majority of women work in small businesses -- the sector that could bring us out of this recession most quickly. And as I see it, a government agency that can help organize the many groups that work on behalf of women and girls will be welcome (so long as it does not become mired in political gaming and showmanship).
Research shows that when girls and women thrive, so do their brothers, fathers, and sons. I hear the arguments of those who see this as reverse discrimination, pointing out that single fathers have to deal with childcare issues just the same as working mothers, and that there is no White House Council on Men and Boys. They are not inaccurate in their claims, and I agree with them to a point, but there is a larger issue at hand. I wrote about this last March in Alive Magazine, and to place this in context, I've reprinted an excerpt here:
Welcome to March -- time for wild weather, spring break, college basketball brackets, and ... National Women's History Month. Indeed, the National Women's History Project has coordinated National Women's History Month since 1987, after it was officially established by a bipartisan Congressional resolution.
Sometimes, though, one cannot help but wonder why we still need to formally recognize the history of women and their contributions to our society. Is it not enough that women enjoy equal rights under the constitution as part of the 14th amendment? Does it not set us apart -- even stigmatize "feminism" further, perhaps -- to devote an entire month of the year to our place in history? Or, only one month, for that matter. Why not six for men and six for women? That sounds equal, and for good reason.
When pressed, I have trouble remembering a time I have been disadvantaged for my gender. A friend recently asked if I have ever been discriminated by an employer, or unfairly passed over for an academic opportunity for being a woman. She can think of dozens of stories her grandmother has shared with her about the struggles of being a woman in the working world. But I'm still drawing a blank. Today, one of the three leading Presidential candidates is a woman, as is Germany's Chancellor (Angela Merkel), the President of Chile (Michelle Bachelet), and the late former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. Our generation of young women played on co-ed soccer teams at the YMCA as children and has always expected to be paid as much for jobs as our male peers. Our mothers and grandmothers fought the first fight, and now we are reaping the social and economic benefits.
So, if we have advanced so far, why should we celebrate National Women's History Month?
Because now, it's our turn. As beneficiaries of this great cultural shift, we must stand for something as well. And despite the gains, there are still countless places in our world where habits of gender equality do not exist. In the words of Myra Pollack Sadker, "Every time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less."
Indeed, recognizing and applauding great achievements by women is a way our society commonly tries to account for past inequalities and grievances. And it is necessary, because every young woman should know the bounds of current achievements so she can aspire to surpass them. But we should also remember that the most important accomplishments are not just the ones that win academic prizes or solve international crises. An entire generation of young women should not think that they are failures if they are not the ones on the cover of a glossy magazine or discovering a cure for breast cancer. We cannot let our standards become so high that they discourage creativity, exploration, and innovation for fear of disappointment.
If we do, we will never win. Instead, we need to encourage each other to be our best selves, and find ways to celebrate the everyday accomplishments as much as we do the inspirational ones. In the end, it is okay not to be the one everyone is writing about. Encyclopedias and newspapers have their place, but they certainly should not determine your happiness and self-worth, or mine. We can define ourselves in more realistic and helpful ways than just as names on lists of award-winners.
I know the debate will continue, and I'm looking forward to what Ms. Jarrett is able to accomplish by coordinating the efforts of existing organizations. In the end, I hope it will be the kind of progress and change that is inclusive, not discriminatory, and productive, not vindictive.
(Excerpt from "Our Turn," originally published in Alive Magazine, March 18, 2008. All rights reserved. www.alivemagazine.org)