On Topic: Gender roles, Martha Stewart and Gloria Steinem

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The photo is a surprise. The black-and-white print itself, part of a collection of photos my mother has begun sorting, is still in pristine condition despite its age, and it shows my maternal grandmother standing up behind the wheel of an industrial-strength tractor.

She’s smiling broadly, for all the world like Gene Autry astride his beloved horse, Champion, and waving to the camera in that World War II we-women-can-do-it-all pose so identified with the period when this picture likely was taken.

That’s about when my grandparents operated a farm in western Pennsylvania, and just before they moved to the city in Ohio where my grandmother drove a bakery truck and my grandfather repaired airplanes for the burgeoning war effort.

Though Betty Miller would not have cottoned to the term “feminist,” surely that’s what she was. Isn’t that what we mean, in the broadest sense of that word, when people make decisions for themselves, regardless of gender expectations?

Yet that word, and the whole concept of feminism, is tricky for us, even though its been in popular use for more than a generation. Toward the end of a lunch meeting just a couple years ago, after I’d made some passing remark about a national figure — I honestly cannot recall who — one 30-something business owner in attendance angrily denounced the person as “that feminist.”

And she proceeded to make it quite clear that, in her eyes, a feminist was below the social misfit who steals Bingo money from the local church.

I asked if she didn’t agree that the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s had helped make it easier for more women — herself included — to own businesses today. But, given her even-more-heated response, in which she painted feminists as shrill troublemakers, you’d have thought I’d accused her of being a liberal … .

“Feminist,” for her, clearly was a dirty word.

So I was mildly surprised to hear Gloria Steinem at the standing-room-only Iowa Womens Leadership Conference in Coralville two weeks ago contend that more than half of American women today (and 30 percent of men) consider themselves feminists, in some form or other.

Moreover, Steinem said in the conference’s closing keynote, “Young women are more likely to call themselves feminists than older women.”

Afterward I asked Steinem, co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus as well as of “New York” and “Ms.” magazines, about this notion of women making headway in business today, if such a large number of its participants — men, too, remember — view themselves as feminists.

Steinem replied that women nowadays no longer have to prove that they deserve equal pay, that all employees should be paid for their comparable worth.

But she conceded the equality argument hasn’t been completely won. In her speech, she cited the value in unity: Women, Steinem said, still “need to support each other. We need to work on where it hurts. … We need to listen to each other.”

And for good reason, it would seem: Catalyst, the not-for-profit research organization, notes that in 2012 the median weekly earnings for full-time working women was $691. For men, it was $854.

For female managers last year, it was $951, while for male managers the figure was $1,328. Fresh numbers, same tune.

So what’s an unappreciated, under-valued employee — be that person a supervisor or client-facing worker, female

or male — supposed to do?

“Think very carefully,” advised Martha Stewart, who’s founded more than a handful of companies and remade herself through a series of career changes — starting out as a stockbroker (after a stint as a model), then becoming, in succession, a gourmet cook, corporate caterer, author, magazine publisher, newspaper columnist and a TV, radio and Internet star.

“It’s hard to be in a job you don’t like,” she said when we spoke just before her operning-day IWLC address, “and it’s not always possible to change. But being happy in your job is very important.”

One first step might be to take a look where you are now.

“Get help from the company,” Stewart said, as many businesses are open to internal mobility. Another position might be a better fit.

But still, it ain’t easy, no matter where you stand on the corporate ladder. The same week that IWLC brought Steinem, Stewart and other business professionals together at the Coralville Marriott, a Politico website columnist sparked another debate on the role of women at the top.

In this case, Jill Abramson, New York Times executive editor since September 2011, was described in an April 23 post as condescending and stubborn, when she wasn’t too busy being “uncaring” and disengaged. Her manner of speaking, it was pointed out, was “in a slow drawl.”

“Jill is very, very unpopular,” the writer, Dylan Byers, quoted an unnamed NYT staffer.

To which we have to ask: Are we talking about the head of one of the planet’s largest, most-respected and most-awarded newsgathering organizations — in April the paper won four more Pulitzers — or about a high-school prom queen candidate? Abramson is “unpopular”? Seriously?

The staff’s preferred leader, the story implies, is a guy, Managing Editor Dean Baquet, who admits he punches his fist through walls when things don’t go his way.

Subsequent website posts quickly took Byers to task. A Huffington Post response, in an Onion-esque hat tip, carried the headline, “Anonymous sources are mad at New York Times Editor Jill Abramson for trying to be their boss and stuff!”

“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn,” Steinem wrote way back in 1970, in a Washington Post guest column. That was the year, she declared, of “women’s liberation.”

It seems we still have things to learn about how to work together, regardless of age, color, religion and, yes — still — gender. Whether we all think we’re feminists or not. 

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