I’m still flabbergasted over two astonishing, recent incidents — one triggered by a Michigan legislator who dared to use the word “vagina” during a floor debate over proposed regulation of female bodies, and the other, which I personally witnessed, involving a dues-paying member of Philadelphia’s Union League being ordered to move from a “men-only table” she and her guests had inadvertently chosen in an empty dining-room.
Throw in the fact that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is investigating the 100-year-old Girl Scouts and I have all the evidence I need that the “war on women” is not only real, it’s gaining momentum.
Michigan’s Vagina Dialogue
Last week, Michigan’s House of Representatives was considering some of the most restrictive, anti-choice legislation in the country. During the floor debate, Rep. Lisa Brown (D) told her colleagues, “I’m flattered that you are all so interested in my vagina, but No means No!”
Brown’s mostly male colleagues apparently have no problem passing laws to regulate vaginas, but were outraged when she uttered the word in public.
Another Michigan legislator, Rep. Barb Byrum, (D) attempted to add an amendment to the bill requiring men to prove a medical emergency before being allowed a vasectomy.
The good news is that vaginas everywhere — and men who support the “V’s” right to make their own medical decisions — are outraged. Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press called it an “Attack on Women — and Democracy.” Detroit News columnist Laura Berman objected to women only being allowed to speak if they agree with men in power.
The Rachel Maddow Show called. And playwright Eve Ensler is flying in Monday to lead eight female legislators in a performance of the Vagina Monologues on the steps of the Michigan Capitol. Suddenly the word that “shall not be named” on the floor of the Michigan House is going viral.
That’s the good news. Can you imagine what Steven Colbert could do with this? It would be funny, if it weren’t so outrageously tragic.
Stepping On A Gender Landmine in Philadelphia‘s Union League.
Philadelphia’s Union League English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The second disturbing example of the cultural headwinds that aspiring women still face occurred at Philadelphia’s storied Union League, which considers itself one of the premier City Clubs in the country and, according to its website, a “diverse gathering place for the business and intellectual elite.”
Like many such private clubs, the 160-year-old Union League was long known as one of the “hardest to crack old boys’ network” in the City of Brotherly Love. Today, not only can women apply for membership, the League boasts its first woman president.
All that’s great. But imagine this scene.
Three high-powered women, two PhDs and an author (me!), each with decades of expertise in transformational leadership and work culture equity, spend the morning leading a discussion on women’s leadership with some of Philadelphia’s most influential women. One of the three, Dr. Ilene Wasserman, then invites her two, out-of-town guests to join her for lunch at the Union League, where she and her husband are new members.
When we arrived, the elegant Founders dining room was empty. We were invited to, “Sit anywhere you’d like. We chose an isolated table by the window. Our drinks arrived and we began settling in for a relaxing lunch.
But then an atomic moment occurred. Two, embarrased employees approached and apologetically informed us we would have to change tables. ”This is the club table of the Groundhogs and Crickets and the president of the club is adamant that no women be allowed to sit at this table,” we were told. “You can choose any other table, but you must move.”
At first, Dr. Wasserman, Dr. Placida Gallegos and I thought it was a joke. But when the employees informed us that they “feared they could be fired” if they did not get us to move, we realized we had inadvertently stumbled upon one of the League’s leftover, gender landmines.
So researchers that we are, we probed, asking, “Is there any table in this dining room where African Americans can never sit?” The employees were shocked by the question.”Of course not.”
“Are there any tables in this dining room where men can never sit?” Same answer. “No.”
What Do Leaders Do?
So what should leaders do, when confronted with blatant or insidious, gender bias? Other than being outraged, what strategic steps can we take to turn these confrontations into transformational moments that can lift everyone involved to a higher level of awareness and behavior?
While researching my book, POWERING UP! How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders, I learned that transformational leaders don’t stand on the sidelines when the going gets tough. They Raise Their Voices. They Break the Rules. They Claim Power. And they repeatedly Drink at Dangerous Waters.
American women are at a key moment in our evolution toward gender parity. Evidence is mounting that hard-fought gains achieved decades ago could slip away. Leaders pay attention to the forces at play around them — and act.
What did Wasserman, Gallegos and I do at the Union League? We decided to move – purely to protect the employees from possible consequences if we made a scene. But we took two other steps to make sure the learning opportunity wasn’t lost on the League leadership or its Members.
We alerted the news media. And, after accepting the profuse apologies of the League’s General Manager and President about what they insisted was “a terrible misunderstanding,” we got a commitment from both that the Board would review all “written and unwritten policies, practices and traditions” that are contrary to the League’s 21st Century, inclusive image.
What Are American Women Afraid Of?
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of hearing Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee speak at the Women in the World conference in NY. Gbowee is the Liberian leader who rose from the ruins of a decade of horrifying civil war in her country to lead the women’s revolution that finally stopped the bloodshed.
English: Nobel Peace laureate, Leymah Gbowee, speaks during a press conference at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA (US) on October 14, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
She is a courageous survivor who has witnessed dead bodies in the streets being eaten by dogs, fought to save her children and herself from starvation and stood up to warlords who threatened to kill her. I will never forget the moment when she looked at the audience and asked, “Where are all the angry American women? What are American women afraid of?”
Great questions, Sister Leymah.
What are we afraid of? How many women elected officials will be silenced? Women leaders marginalized and reminded of “their place” — be it in private clubs or corporations? Or organizations committed to empowering girls and women, such as the Girl Scouts and the Association of Women Religious, relentlessly harassed before American women wake up and realize our struggles for gender parity have just begun?
It is time for women and men who support us to become “strategically angry” and collectively raise our our voices, use our wallets and votes, and summon our courage to say, “No, you don’t!” That’s what it takes to be a catalyst for positive social change. , rather than simply being an Achiever content to dine at the banquet of opportunities served up by others.