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First, there was the blistering backlash in the media over “Lean-In,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s yet-unpublished book.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.