Feminism is the New F-Word

In her international bestseller “Lean In,” Ms. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, cites how Professor Michele Elam noted very few students who took her “Introduction to Feminist Studies” course felt comfortable using the word “feminism” and even “fewer identified themselves as feminists.”  When I asked several male friends what they immediately thought of upon hearing the word “feminism,” some clammed up, and one actually sneered and uttered a derogatory word not fit for print.

The feminist movement and its activists have made great strides towards gender equality.  Women make up more than 50% of college graduates and 47% of the workforce.  The percentage of female Fortune 500 CEOs has reached its all-time high, though at a still dismal 4.8%.  19.4% of our representatives in both Houses are women, and there are currently two female presidential candidates attempting to smash the ultimate glass ceiling.  So why do so few women profess to be feminists, and why do the word “feminism” and “feminist” appear to have such a negative connotation these days?

There are two interesting articles that have been widely discussed during the last few weeks.  Ms. Heather Robinson writes for the New York Post that some of the women living in the city she interviewed long for the days when men would actually call women for dates, put on suits, and pay for dinners.  The New York Times published an article called “Poor Little Rich Women,” whose author Ms. Wednesday Martin observes that the women she meets on the Upper East Side, despite having education from elite universities, choose to “stay home, exercise to a razor’s edge,” focus on their children, and hope for bonuses from their hedge fund manager husbands so that they can plan a girl’s night out or splurge on a $10,000 table a charity function.  These behaviors and sentiment seem so far removed from the ideals our previous generations’ feminists struggled for, and they are rightfully baffled.  Ms. Sandberg again quotes Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation who ponders: “My generation fought so hard for all of your choices.  We believe in choices.  But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make.”

Maybe that serves as a clue to why feminism has lost its appeal.  Ancient Chinese philosophers have warned that “too much of a good thing becomes bad.”  I am afraid that in today’s overly sensitive and hyper politically correct atmosphere, disagreement and legitimate debates have been succumbed to hyperbole and heavy-handedness.  Though Ms. Martin does not declare it, it’s evident from her choice of words and tone that she considers these women superficial, materialistic and downright tragic.  Why, she wonders, would these educated, smart and beautiful women engage in seemingly trivial and frivolous pursuits? Well, she should know: feminism has empowered women to pursue lifestyles of their own choices: they can elect to work, or stay at home.  Why should those who opt for staying home be regarded as not fulfilling their potentials? While the trailblazers in their eras helped usher in voting rights, protections from discrimination and harassment in the workplace – and women of this and the next generations will forever be grateful to them – we must respect different voices and decisions.  Case in point: when a first time novelist decides to poke fun at you, you know that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction:  Ms. Patrick Park, in her debut book “Jane Re” creates a character “who seems crazy,” and who is, what else, “an eccentric feminist scholar with an attic office,” married to a younger man living in her shadow who, is it really surprising, is her title character’s Mr. Rochester.

Bertha Mason photo

I for one, after experiencing all sorts of stereotypes, discrimination and harassment at classroom, boardroom and card room both in China and USA, have changed my own attitude and approaches over the years, and concluded that humor is the best tactic.  When my colleague and I were travelling in China last month, on one particularly grueling day we had to spend 16 hours on the road visiting three potential clients.  Our last appointment picked us up at 7 pm and admired me, “a woman,” for doing so much trekking.  I chuckled, and quoted my idol Madonna: “A girl has got to make a living.”  Laughter erupted and tension gave away to understanding and admiration.

Our pop culture likes to tell women that they can have it all, whatever the definition of “having it all” is.  Our current state of feminism, in its extreme and militant style, has alienated men and women, the very group it intends to protect and promote, so much so that even women who are for equality of opportunities and treatments, afraid of being ostracized and ridiculed, refuse to admit that they are feminists.  Some men, on the other hand, for fear of being labeled as “chauvinists,” stop taking professional and personal responsibilities or displaying “chivalry.”  Isn’t it time for the so-called “feminists” to re-consider their messages and strategies, and adopt a methodology that is actually going to advance their agenda?

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Why New York women wish they lived in the ‘Mad Men’ era

New York Post

By Heather Robinson

May 14, 2015

The final episode of AMC’s “Mad Men” this Sunday heralds the end of a TV era. The show’s seven seasons covered the turbulent decade from 1960 until 1970, dramatizing changing styles and social mores in the lives of “Mad Men” and women, or professionals in the Madison Avenue advertising industry.

For those who aren’t regular watchers: A lot of the show’s male characters spent their time chasing young women around the office and a lot of the female characters spent their time trying to land or keep a husband.

Critics have consistently lauded the series, not just for its entertainment value but also for exposing the dark underbelly of a prosperous, conservative era. Yet I can’t help but wonder if in some ways life wasn’t easier back then — especially for single, marriage-minded women.

New York City career women in their 30s and 40s told me this week that in some ways life seemed easier back then for single women, and love was easier to find during our mothers’ day than it is now.

Melanie Notkin, cultural anthropologist and author of “Motherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness,” said the women she interviewed, “no matter their race, ethnicity or cultural background, had similar concerns with dating — men didn’t plan dates, dressed down for dates, were no longer chivalrous.”

Although she faced other problems, surely Joan, the voluptuous office manager on “Mad Men,” didn’t date anyone who failed to put on a suit, plan an evening and pay the check.

The proliferation of online dating sites and “hookup culture” — or decreased stigma around no-strings-attached sex between strangers — means that immature men’s playground is no longer just the halls of their office buildings. It’s the entire city.

“It’s like we’ve become this commodity where men can pick out what they want whenever they want,” said Alicia, 37, who works in advertising and lives downtown.

Says Ellie, 42, a student on Manhattan’s East Side who used to work in publishing, “Technology is supposed to bring people closer, but especially in the context of dating it pushes people further apart. It used to be a guy had to call and leave a message and you called him back and you made a date.”

Now, says Ellie, it’s just “texting that leads nowhere.”

“I think there was more respect for marriage and family life during” the 1950s and early 1960s, Ellie added. “I wish I could travel backward to a simpler time.”

Indeed, for better or for worse, more Americans are putting off marriage or deciding to forgo it entirely: According to a September 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, the share of American adults who have never been married is at an all-time high.

In 1960, only one in 10 adults age 25 or older had never been married. Now it’s up to one in five.

Pew also found that people are marrying for the first time later in life now than in the early 1960s: In 2011, the median age for first marriage was almost 29 for men and 26.5 for women as compared to the early 20s for both sexes in 1960.

Is it possible that some of the wild enthusiasm for “Mad Men” among viewers stems from a yearning for the satisfaction and sexiness of traditional sex roles, including chivalry?

“When I watch ‘Mad Men,’ I think, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great to date a man who knows what he likes to drink, who pulls out the chair, who dresses up and is clean shaven and at least wears a sport jacket?’ It’s sexy,” said Notkin.

“Although in many ways he’s despicable, in certain ways many of us find Don Draper attractive,” Notkin said, adding that the character Joan — the office bombshell — resonates with some female viewers because “we are craving the power of our femininity.”

Ultimately most women want equality with men, and value the increased legal protection from sexual harassment in the workplace of the type dramatized in “Mad Men.”

After hours, though, some of us long for men who can treat us not only as equals to be respected, but as women to be desired — and cherished.

Have we become madwomen to consider anything less?



Poor Little Rich Women

New York Times


WHEN our family moved from the West Village to the Upper East Side in 2004, seeking proximity to Central Park, my in-laws and a good public school, I thought it unlikely that the neighborhood would hold any big surprises. For many years I had immersed myself — through interviews, reviews of the anthropological literature and participant-observation — in the lives of women from the Amazon basin to sororities at a Big Ten school. I thought I knew from foreign.

Then I met the women I came to call the Glam SAHMs, for glamorous stay-at-home-moms, of my new habitat. My culture shock was immediate and comprehensive. In a country where women now outpace men in college completion, continue to increase their participation in the labor force and make gains toward equal pay, it was a shock to discover that the most elite stratum of all is a glittering, moneyed backwater.

A social researcher works where she lands and resists the notion that any group is inherently more or less worthy of study than another. I stuck to the facts. The women I met, mainly at playgrounds, play groups and the nursery schools where I took my sons, were mostly 30-somethings with advanced degrees from prestigious universities and business schools. They were married to rich, powerful men, many of whom ran hedge or private equity funds; they often had three or four children under the age of 10; they lived west of Lexington Avenue, north of 63rd Street and south of 94th Street; and they did not work outside the home.

Instead they toiled in what the sociologist Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering,” exhaustively enriching their children’s lives by virtually every measure, then advocating for them anxiously and sometimes ruthlessly in the linked high-stakes games of social jockeying and school admissions.

Their self-care was no less zealous or competitive. No ponytails or mom jeans here: they exercised themselves to a razor’s edge, wore expensive and exquisite outfits to school drop-off and looked a decade younger than they were. Many ran their homes (plural) like C.E.O.s.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my background in anthropology might help me figure it all out, and that this elite tribe and its practices made for a fascinating story.

I was never undercover; I told the women I spent time with that I was writing a book about being a mother on the Upper East Side, and many of them were eager to share their perspectives on what one described as “our in many ways very weird world.”

It was easy for me to fall into the belief, as I lived and lunched and mothered with more than 100 of them for the better part of six years, that all these wealthy, competent and beautiful women, many with irony, intelligence and a sense of humor about their tribalism (“We are freaks for Flywheel,” one told me, referring to the indoor cycling gym), were powerful as well. But as my inner anthropologist quickly realized, there was the undeniable fact of their cloistering from men. There were alcohol-fueled girls’ nights out, and women-only luncheons and trunk shows and “shopping for a cause” events. There were mommy coffees, and women-only dinners in lavish homes. There were even some girlfriend-only flyaway parties on private planes, where everyone packed and wore outfits the same color.

“It’s easier and more fun,” the women insisted when I asked about the sex segregation that defined their lives.

“We prefer it,” the men told me at a dinner party where husbands and wives sat at entirely different tables in entirely different rooms.

Sex segregation, I was told, was a “choice.” But like “choosing” not to work, or a Dogon woman in Mali’s “choosing” to go into a menstrual hut, it struck me as a state of affairs possibly giving clue to some deeper, meaningful reality while masquerading, like a reveler at the Save Venice ball the women attended every spring, as a simple preference.

And then there were the wife bonuses.

I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.

A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.

Women who didn’t get them joked about possible sexual performance metrics. Women who received them usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further, proof to an anthropologist that a topic is taboo, culturally loaded and dense with meaning.

But what exactly did the wife bonus mean? It made sense only in the context of the rigidly gendered social lives of the women I studied. The worldwide ethnographic data is clear: The more stratified and hierarchical the society, and the more sex segregated, the lower the status of women.

Financially successful men in Manhattan sit on major boards — of hospitals, universities and high-profile diseases, boards whose members must raise or give $150,000 and more. The wives I observed are usually on lesser boards, women’s committees and museums in the outer boroughs with annual expectations of $5,000 or $10,000. Husbands are trustees of prestigious private schools, where they accrue the cultural capital that comes with being able to vouch for others in the admissions game; their wives are “class moms,” the unremunerated social and communications hub for all the other mothers.

WHILE their husbands make millions, the privileged women with kids who I met tend to give away the skills they honed in graduate school and their professions — organizing galas, editing newsletters, running the library and bake sales — free of charge. A woman’s participation in Mommynomics is a way to be helpful, even indispensable. It is also an act of extravagance, a brag: “I used to work, I can, but I don’t need to.”

Anthropology teaches us to take the long and comparative view of situations that may seem obvious. Among primates, Homo sapiens practice the most intensive food and resource sharing, and females may depend entirely on males for shelter and sustenance. Female birds and chimps never stop searching out food to provide for themselves and their young. Whether they are Hadza women who spend almost as much time as men foraging for food, Agta women of the Philippines participating in the hunt or !Kung women of southern Africa foraging for the tubers and roots that can tide a band over when there is no meat from a hunt, women who contribute to the group or family’s well-being are empowered relative to those in societies where women do not. As in the Kalahari Desert and rain forest, resources are the bottom line on the Upper East Side. If you don’t bring home tubers and roots, your power is diminished in your marriage. And in the world.

Rich, powerful men may speak the language of partnership in the absence of true economic parity in a marriage, and act like true partners, and many do. But under this arrangement women are still dependent on their men — a husband may simply ignore his commitment to an abstract idea at any time. He may give you a bonus, or not. Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns, hunts or gathers it.

The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses — dependent and comparatively disempowered. Just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates her version of power from her man’s, might keep a thinking woman up at night.


Patricia Park talks about her Korean American spin on Jane Eyre

Los Angeles Times

By Steph Cha

May 17, 2015

Patricia Park’s debut novel, “Re Jane” (Pamela Dorman/Viking: 340 pp., $27.95), is a retelling of everyone’s favorite Gothic Victorian Brontë romance, “Jane Eyre,” transferred to New York and South Korea in the early 2000s. Her heroine, Jane Re, is a half-Korean orphan raised by her uncle’s family in Flushing, Queens, a neighborhood that feels “all Korean, all the time.” When a prestigious post-college job offer falls through thanks to the dot-com crash, Jane takes a job as an au pair in Brooklyn in order to escape Queens and her uncle’s grocery store.

Her employers are Ed Farley and Beth Mazer, two Brooklyn English professors with an adopted Chinese daughter. Ed, as you may have guessed, is brooding and manly, with a strong jawline and a Brooklyn accent — pure Kryptonite for our wide-eyed, 22-year-old Jane. He lives in the shadow of his older, more accomplished wife, an eccentric feminist scholar with an attic office, who takes it upon herself to educate their sheltered au pair.

With her mixed blood and her torn loyalties, Jane embodies the confusion of both young adulthood and the hyphenated American experience. Impressionable and accommodating at the start of the novel, she struggles to find her own identity as the places and people in her life try to claim her. Her journey is a pleasure to follow, immensely rewarding and speckled with humor and romance.

Like her Jane, Park grew up in Queens, the daughter of Korean immigrants, and she currently lives in Brooklyn. Since graduating with an master’s in fiction from Boston University, where she studied with Ha Jin, she’s spent her time writing and teaching in the U.S. and Seoul.

Park spoke by phone about New York realities, Korean manners and of course, Jane Eyre. She will be reading from “Re Jane” at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Thursday at 7 p.m.

Tell me about your relationship with Jane Eyre.

I was born and raised in Queens in an immigrant Korean household and I encountered “Jane Eyre” when I was in the 6th grade. I was immediately struck by it — it was the first time I saw a heroine self-described as “poor, obscure, plain, and little” get so much airtime. She was so different from the Disney princesses I saw.

And growing up in a strict Korean home, I felt like there were so many parallels to the strict, conservative Victorian England Jane lived in. When I was little and I would misbehave, my mom would say in her broken English, “You act like orphan.” I realized that the postwar Korean construct of the orphan was one that was kind of wicked, mischievous or rather shameful, someone who acted like they didn’t get a good family education. When I revisited “Jane Eyre” in grad school, I noticed a lot of these epithets were thrown at Jane.

What were some of the challenges of adapting and updating this novel?

I think Jane Eyre is so beloved because she was refreshingly independent and ahead of her times, but she was also part of her times. In my earlier drafts, Jane Re was so passive, in the vein of those old English novels. It took many drafts to get her back up to speed and have all the richness of a modern-day lead female character. These are probably fighting words to purists, but I had a lot of problems accepting Rochester as Jane Eyre’s romantic endgame. He betrayed her almost unforgivably. I guess some of the challenge of writing Ed Farley’s character was making him round and sympathetic.

And how about that madwoman in the attic?

I confess I’m being a little playfully meta and poking fun of academia by casting Beth as a women’s studies scholar. I really have problems with this notion of female hysteria. I think it’s such a cop-out that women are written off as crazy. In Beth Mazer I wanted to create a character who seems crazy, at least to Jane, but who she starts to read with new and empathetic eyes.

Right, because she’s 22, which really is a specific time of life. How was that time for you?

When I entered college, I had a very different idea of how things would turn out when I graduated. The economy was still booming, and I thought everyone got cushy job offers. But when I graduated, the economy had tanked and we were all competing for unpaid internships. I moved right back into the home I was trying to get out of when I shipped off to college. I think for Jane, she never got the experience of going away for college. She always did the smart, practical nunchi-ful thing. She thought she would move away, and that was denied to her.

The concept of nunchi is one of the defining principles of your book. So,what is it?

Nunchi has no translation in English, but it’s kind of anticipation and foresight. It’s the ability to walk into a room, read the situation and anticipate how you and everyone else in that room is supposed to behave. It’s the governing principle of Korean society. In some ways, it has a parallel to Victorian society, which is very scripted, where people are expected to know how to behave.

Jane Eyre is constantly shot looks of nunchi. What is a governess doing in a parlor? I’ve found personally whenever I move from Korean society to “mainstream American” society, my nunchi radar is off and I find myself behaving in strange ways and having to readjust. It’s not as clearly defined in Western culture, so I felt like I needed to introduce nunchi in “Re Jane” because a Western audience might not understand Jane’s own impediments or social restraints without it. She’s trying to follow a specific code of social behavior as she tries to make her way through the world.

Jane shuttles between Brooklyn, Queens and Seoul, and the settings really define the moods of the novel. Can you talk about what these places mean to Jane, and to you?

I was born and raised in Queens and my parents have a grocery business in Brooklyn, so I’ve been shuttling between the two boroughs my whole life. As a native of the outer boroughs, you grow up basically in the shadows of Manhattan. My whole life, my goal was to end up in Manhattan. That being said, we’re living in a time where the commodification of Brooklyn is almost a cliche. There’s cultural and artistic cache to Brooklyn, and Queens is on its way as well. I find it ironic that the places I grew up thinking of as undesirable are coming into a renaissance.

Korea was the place Jane was always told was the “motherland.” And for me, as a Korean American, I also grew up with that mentality. But Jane arrives in Seoul and finds that it feels even more foreign, there’s such a disconnect between Korea in her mind’s eye and technologically advanced Seoul. Jane feels like a foreigner in Flushing in Brooklyn and in Seoul, and it’s only after she tries on her assigned identities that she comes to learn who she is and carves out her own space.

Ultimately, I want to challenge neat, little, boxed identity categories, that question of “Where are you from?” followed by “Where are you really from?” I would hope that anyone who feels or has felt out of place can find something in this book.