Marissa, Sheryl And The Human Race

The wonderful new PBS documentary "MAKERS: Women Who Make America" opens with the little-known story of Kathrine Switzer, who, as an athletic college junior and long-distance runner in 1967, entered the all-male Boston Marathon by using her initials instead of her first name. When a race official noticed her running in the crowd, he stopped the flatbed truck carrying him and the press, forcibly tackled her, and started tearing at her race numbers to rip them off her chest.

Her boyfriend, an All-American football player, shoved him away, and she finished the marathon.

This was all recorded on film, and became front-page news at a time when most people thought women would lose their uteruses running long distances. The press asked her if she was a "suffragette." She answered that she was just trying to run a race. By 1972, the Marathon started allowing female runners.

Between 1967 and 1972, “women’s liberation” (along with abortion and the pill) exploded into a full-fledged social, political, and sexual revolution. Leaders like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who were not in the least humorless or prudish, as charged, emerged. Their ideas trickled down to suburban housewives, who secretly joined “consciousness-raising groups” and hid their Ms. magazines in their garages. Women invaded every profession, and changed their second-class status.

Still, at every stage, women who spoke out and tried to break barriers were routinely shamed, attacked and denounced as insurgents who would ruin the country and the American family. They were told by the powers that be to get out of the race.

And not always by men.

By the time of the imminent passage of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) in the late 1970s, anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, a lawyer, rallied housewives who, ironically, had to get out of the house and work in the larger world to stop it. To this day, the ERA is not law, and the infighting, pendulum swings and ambivalence about what feminism has wrought -- including birth control and abortion -- continue.

I couldn’t help but see the historical similarities with the latest war on women in the news this week.
First, there was the blistering backlash in the media over “Lean-In,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s yet-unpublished book. Then we got the furor over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s latest company-wide fiat, forcing telecommuters to show up in the office.

Not unexpectedly, both women rose to prominence in the progressive, but mostly male hothouse atmosphere of Google. Each makes an appearance in “Makers.”

Back in the day, the main criticism of Betty Friedan, author of the best-selling “Feminine Mystique,” was that she was an ambitious, educated, upper-middle-class elite female speaking to the masses of women who had a lot more to worry about than feeling bored while child-rearing and cleaning their big suburban houses.

As soon as the press started previewing her book, the criticism of Sandberg, 43, was mostly that she’s an ambitious, super-rich, highly educated woman who -- by dint of having a rich husband, and an army of nannies, housekeepers and private planes -- can’t speak to the troubles of the average working women.

These are the women who are already struggling with the impossible demands of juggling family life and work, while their wages have stagnated and their hours lengthened. They don’t have time to join “Lean In” circles -- gatherings that Sandberg wants to start nationwide to teach members how to “raise their hands” and negotiate raises.

Despite the picture painted of her by, among others, Maureen Dowd, as a publicity hound promoting her own brand so that she can eventually run for political office, Sandberg comes off well in the film, like an old soul with an Oprah-ish window into women.

“Being a parent is not a full-time job for a woman and a part-time job for a man,” she says. "He doesn’t feel guilty,” she says of her husband. “I feel guilty.”

Whereas in Mayer’s appearance, she is shown in an interview she did shortly after taking office at Yahoo, saying that she wasn’t a feminist. While she said she believes in equal work for equal pay, she doesn’t identify with the "militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder.” She’s not alone in her generation in seeing feminism as unpleasant and dowdy.

And this is not the only time she has come off as completely tone deaf to women’s issues. While she was still at Google, she explained that she used “gender unaware” and “gender blind” growing up to her advantage. “I was so glad during school that my teachers didn’t mention that I was a girl, or ask how to get more girls into computers,” she said. “That can handicap progress. ... Had I noticed that I was the only blonde woman in my (advanced computer) classes, I would have felt stifled.”

Spoken like a true engineer, not a CEO. She is so monomaniacal in her job focus, she doesn’t see the need to be a role model for women. This fits in with her inflexibility about virtual work -- at a company that is known for breakthrough technology. Yahoo brought us the email and instant messaging that allows people to work from home!

She’s speaking to Wall Street, showing a toughness for what needs to be done, and perhaps finding a way to lay off those who won’t change their habits.

Certainly, spontaneous conversations in hallways can sometimes result in great ideas. But it doesn’t happen every day; workers also have breakthroughs from the quiet of their homes. The point is: It’s exactly companies like Yahoo that have changed the whole professional labor landscape, for better or worse, so that there is no longer any division between work and home, 24/7, seven days a week.

Having a front seat to history is fascinating; no need to get self-righteously appalled and judgmental. What becomes clear from “Makers” is that we need all the opportunities and options we can get. I’ll be reading Sandberg’s book as soon as it comes out to see where I stand on “Lean In.”

Meantime, in response to Mayer’s latest brou-Yahoo--haha, I have two (or is it three?) words: Google Hangouts. We all need to stay in the race.

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15 comments about "Marissa, Sheryl And The Human Race".
  1. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future , February 28, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.
    Amazing! I don't know why there is such a divide between women of the boomer generation and the millennial but it's definitely there. Maybe the biggest difference is the way than young men have changed in their attitude toward women making millennial men the true "feminists".
  2. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , February 28, 2013 at 3:34 p.m.
    That is so true, FF! The film ended with one of the original founders of Ms. saying that the younger generations have stopped fighting and lost their passion. There are plenty of young feminists, but the generation in between, who grew up with working mothers, generally have mixed emotions. The change in young men is inspiring.
  3. Rick Noel from eBiz ROI, Inc. , February 28, 2013 at 3:57 p.m.
    Nice article Barbara. You had me at the headline. We have come a long way since 1967. It is an interesting position the Marissa is taking about disallowing telecommuting at Yahoo! I wonder if it will hurt or help. The best employees will have choices even in a down economy. In the end, I wonder if this mandate to work from the office will help. The issue got some decent coverage last night (5-10 min segment) on PBS News Hour last night which was interesting. On an editorial note, Sheryl's title is Facebook COO, unless Mark recently promoted her to his role ;-)
  4. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , February 28, 2013 at 4:03 p.m.
    RIck--the news, obviously was not supposed to come out the way it did. but it makes Mayer look really retro in so many ways. How many of her female employees can build nurseries next to their cubicles? especially now that they will be spending an extra 2 hours a day in their cars commuting. About the title mistake-- ye gods. thanks for pointing that out. we will correct it!
  5. Jonathan Hutter from Garrand , February 28, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.
    My view of what feminism is or should be was forever muddled years ago, when my sales rep for Ms. Magazine left that job, and went to Penthouse.
  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , February 28, 2013 at 8:58 p.m.
    The younger generation never experienced the men/women job separations, constant wayward advances that were not illegal (taped or photoed either), no women bosses except in the secretarial pool, oxfords and house dresses as fashion day rigeour at home with the obligatory hat and gloves - no galoshes to work, deny entrance to hosts of things and and and and and.....apathy takes over. Not until (hopefully never) 1967 rains upon their heads will they move their booties.
  7. Alex Lekas from PTI Security , March 1, 2013 at 8:09 a.m.
    I look forward to a story about a woman exec that never gets around to mentioning that she's a woman because it is immaterial to the story. My first boss was a woman and that was 30 years ago. Seems the biggest problem with feminism is its refusal to accept victory, much like the modern-day civil rights movement, both of which act as though the calendar is perpetually stuck on 1956.
  8. Scotty Reiss from SheBuysCars.com , March 1, 2013 at 8:42 a.m.
    When I was in high school my mother told me two things that ended up being quite prophetic: First, that I would work in my adult life and not stay at home, as she did; and that when she and my father bought their first house, even though my mom was working, her salary didn't help to qualify them for a mortgage, because the bank assumed she would stop working when she had kids. These two statements seemed separate at the time, but now are inextricably linked. In women, the finance industry saw an opportunity to make more money in mortgages, credit card interest, car loan interest and more. I've often thought this marketplace force fueled women's ability to rise in workplaces more than anything else. Of course, having Ms. Magazine, Cosmo and the rest there to cheer us on, give us advice and insight our aspirations was key, too.
  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , March 1, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.
    When I went to buy cars, I was told to bring in my husband or father. I walked out and made sure the owner, not manager, knew.
  10. Thomas Siebert from WOLFGANG SOLO: Strategic Communications & Benevolent Propaganda , March 1, 2013 at 1:01 p.m.
    Great op-ed piece in y'day's FT (behind a pay wall, unfortunately), mocking Mayer by concocting fake emails from other corporate CEOs. Ford's suggests employees start riding their bikes to work and closes the company's parking lots. British Air wants more teleconferencing of employees, less travel. Apple puts a moratorium on gadgets at the office, encouraging face-to-face communication. Very funny and dead-on.
  11. Ivy Baer Sherman from Vintage Magazine , March 1, 2013 at 1:35 p.m.
    The irony of Kathrine Switzer's All-American Football Hero boyfriend coming to her rescue, in caped-hero/ running-garb fashion, allowing her to continue her historic course, somehow escaped my notice as I watched the PBS program. I was cheering her on, outraged as the flatbedded marathon man physically accosted her, and relieved that she managed to continue -- and complete -- the race. I somehow think she would have accomplished her feat on her own two feet -- with or without her boyfriend's noble interception.
  12. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , March 1, 2013 at 5:04 p.m.
    @Scotty-- actually women who were employed and did not have a husband or children were also rejected by mortgage companies! and even divorcees and widows could not get mortgages. For the now 35 and unders. that was their grandma's generation, and seems very distant.
  13. George Parker from Parker Consultants , March 3, 2013 at 6:31 p.m.
    I shall drop just one name... Mary Wells... One of the smartest people I ever worked with. She founded one of America's greatest agencies in 1966. By 1997 she was the highest paid PERSON in advertising. (Marrying Harding Lawrence didn't hurt) A few years ago in conversation with a young creative at a BDA, I mentioned Mary Wells, the young lady asked... "Mary who?" Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker
  14. leslie sturm from Consultant , March 8, 2013 at 3:27 p.m.
    I live in a mans world. I have what I call a,"no fear policy". That means I tell people what I think they should do becasue they hired me to do so". If they fire me they have that right. I work hard to never let them see me, "bled" because I think men in busines smell blood and weakness, they will take advantage of that, it's in their blood. I have no luxury of a husband, I have two children I support. I don't make tons of money. I am gen x. I hate and love the, "bra burners". I am even glad that Kathrine Switzer's boyfriend rescued her. I like chilalry and I don't want it to die. I don't think I have to be like a man because I am a women and I have different things to give my clients because I am a female. Let the critics stand and take their best shot but we are different. We have boobies. I need a bra for mine but I am happy I have the right to not wear one it's just a bit bouncy in the world and I like male help sometimes. I know you may think I need a gravity ck but I will continue to try and boost them up as much as I can;( It's my nature. So I guess I am the gen x mixed up generationalist.
  15. Ngoc T from Iowa , March 15, 2013 at 11:35 a.m.
    Kathrine is an inspiration to everyone. Mayer is in a no-win situation. Leslie, you rock.