Thursday, February 08, 2007

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

So this isn't about cowgirls, even though it is about Sandra Day O'Connor, and she was once a cowgirl. And it isn't about Tom Robbins's novel, although I remember this book fondly as one of Gene Magill's favorites (more about him in a future post). It's about getting the blues about how complicated it is to have a gender neutral working experience in this day and age.

The Slate article that triggered this is by Dahlia Lithwick, who is almost always a hilarious writer. (She explains why here.) But Justice Girls caught my attention because she wasn't even remotely funny in this one. And there really isn't anything remotely funny about the women who reached the pinnacle of the legal profession by being appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States feeling that that the all-eyes-upon-you pressure of being the only woman on the high court is isolating. Or feeling that they were pressured into retiring early to save their boss's ego.

And yet my rant is not that we should get equal representation in institutions of power and influence so that people like Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wouldn't have cause to express these sentiments. I suppose there are options, including mandates of some sort, but I don't think it would work here, and frankly I doubt most American women would feel comfortable with it--I wouldn't, and I'm not even American.

My rant really is really about how intractable it all seems, these asymmetries and the resulting isolation and grief they cause. From a continent away and perhaps worlds away, here's another story about gender asymmetries and isolation and grief. A couple of weeks ago, I was horrified to learn about tsunami survivors who are now reduced to selling their kidneys, and now Meredith, my colleague just back from Chennai reports that when she met with a women’s “self-help” group of isherman’s wives, she asked them why it was just women who sold their kidneys. The answer? Because only women’s kidneys were any good. Alcohol has destroyed the men's kidneys. It's horrifying enough that women are going under the knife to have 50% of a vital organ sold off to keep their families alive, with all the risks that it entails, and under suboptimal medical conditions (let alone after care). It's equally horrifying to think that the men of these households have been so disempowered by the disaster and what has followed to be poisoning themselves with alcohol.

Maybe Tora-san had it right--the hero of long-running Japanese movie series: 男はつらいよ. (Life's hard for a guy.)


Elizabeth said...

Hi Mari,
Read your post with interest but only just now got around to reading the Slate article. I was struck that the author's take on the comments were immediately pidgeon holed into concepts of feminism and their role as women.

Truth in the matter is that being the first at anything is lonely. Being a leader is lonely. Being an innovator or entrepreneur is lonely. I use to talk about this quite a bit, as the only peer I had in the world with the same job description was over in India. (Not that I'm comparing myself with the first ladies of the supreme court... though my ego would probably permit that :)

It just happens that the place where Ginsberg and O'Connor excelled was being the single highest ranking women in the US court system. And for that, when they are criticized or ridiculed it comes down to their emotional state as women. THAT is unfair. But I feel that is as much the author's lens as it is the state of the world.

As to women giving their kidneys... there is really nothing I can say other than -- it is a true testiment to female strength in the 'asymmetries of between how women and men deal with poverty.' On that note -- i heard an interesting report the other day that says that the velocity of money (the number of times that money is circled through a community) is 22X higher when invested in women than when invested in men. Perhaps if men were giving up their kidneys, that gap might close...

mashenka@dc said...

Hey Eli--
Totally agree that it's lonely being the first at anything. But I'm not sure Dahlia is forcing a framework on the comments made by Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ruth is not the first woman on the Supreme Court, but she is the ONLY one, just as Clarence Thomas is the ONLY African-American. And I suspect, they each feel lonely in their own way, as a woman and as someone of African heritage.

So think about it. Ruth is 73 years old. So she was born 13 years after women got the right to vote--it took her entire lifetime for there to be still one woman out of 12 justices--I suspect that has played into her perceptions.

Which is not to say that it's the right perspective, of course--yours may actually be the healthier one to have and may yet prove to be true.