On The Beijing Platform For Action and How You Can Help

wgg-logoThe folks over at The Working Group on Girls – a coalition of over 80 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who are dedicated to promoting the human rights of the girl child by advancing the inclusion and status of girls and assisting them to develop into their full potential as women – have put together a survey to help assess the progress of the United Nation’s “The Beijing Platform for Action”.

Twenty years ago, in 1995, the United Nations convened its fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. By identifying twelve strategic areas to assist in empowering women, a gender-equality road map emerged to help governments and communities around the world address a variety of human rights issues related to improving quality of life for girls and women.

Now WGG wants to know how this platform has impacted communities the past twenty years, and how the lives of girls have changed through its use.

If you know a girl under the age of 18, please ask her to consider completing this short survey. Help give girls the opportunity to impact their world by providing them a platform to voice their concerns, accomplishments, and dreams.

Simply follow the link to complete or share the survey: Girls Grade Beijing

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On the “International Day of the Girl, 2014”

International Day of the Girl2014 AvatarResearch shows that educating girls in developing countries dramatically increases national literacy rates, which in turn, directly benefits economic development. When girls and women are provided equal education and economic opportunities, communities thrive.

The United Nations has recognized the importance of promoting girls’ rights around the globe, and in 2011 announced October 11th as the “International Day of the Girl”. In response to this initiative, the nonprofit organization, Sage Girl, partnered with Rebecca Gaynier of iTwixie to create the IDG Summit. In anticipation of IDG 2014, I asked IDG Summit co-founder, Emily Bent, to provide us with some more information surrounding this upcoming global event and to give some suggestions on how all of us can get involved in helping raise awareness toward girls’ rights around the world. Feel free to read and share as often as you like!

Beyond Lipstick and Petticoats: First, Emily, tell us a little bit about the annual International Day of the Girl Summit: how and when was it founded, what is its mission, where is it held, and who is involved?

Emily: The IDG Summit was founded in the summer of 2012 in honor of the 1st International Day of the Girl on October 11, 2012. The UN declared October 11th as the ‘International Day of the Girl Child’ in December of 2011, and they marked Oct. 11, 2012 as the first commemoration of this day. Every year UNICEF declares a theme for IDG related to girls’ rights and concerns globally; this year, the theme is about eliminating violence against girls (here is the link to the announcement: http://www.unicef.org/gender/gender_66021.html).

The IDG Summit is a program and initiative supported by a local nonprofit organization, Sage Girl, which is based in Hunterdon County, NJ. We created the IDG Summit along with Rebecca Gaynier from iTwixie for a number of reasons. First, the IDG Summit celebrates the power and potential of girls globally. We look to the spirit of IDG to elevate the voices and experiences of girls, but also to inspire others to take action and to work together to change the world with and for girls. The IDG Summit also seeks to create partnerships amongst other girl-centered organizations and to raise awareness about the critical work that so many girls’ organizations are doing locally, nationally, and globally. Too often, we end up sectioned off from one another and don’t get the opportunity to collaborate or support one another – but the IDG Summit is all about collaboration and partnership. Each year, we partner with upwards of 50 – 60 organizations invested in girls’ rights and empowerment.

Our mission is simply to bring girls and girl-serving organizations together to celebrate IDG and to collectively elevate the status of girls globally. We do this primarily though social media and web-based technologies with several signature initiatives including: 11 Days of Action and IDG Webcast on Oct. 11th. These activities are held on our website, and social media pages. But, we also host a physical event at the United Nations called the Girls Speak Out (and this will be the 2nd year that we are organizing this event) which is an event that gives girls the chance to advocate on their behalf, address key issues and concerns in their everyday lives, and speak directly with members of the international community.

BLaP: What inspired you to create IDG?

Emily: Unfortunately, I cannot take credit for creating IDG – this was the international community, namely the United Nations that established IDG.

But in creating the IDG Summit, Rebecca and I were inspired by a number of things – the girls that we work with everyday, the amazing stories globally of girls taking action and becoming strong activists for the issues that impact their lives, the adults and organizations that tirelessly support girls and challenge others to see girls as peers and actors with something important to say and contribute to the world, and the global movement to not only recognize the possibilities that result from girls’ empowerment but also the call for solidarity and collaboration across borders. Our tagline is “Together, we are changing the world.” And we truly believe that if we can come together and leverage the energy and passion of IDG – we can change the world.

BLaP: Who are some of your major sponsors? In what ways have they contributed to your mission (i.e., UNICEF and this year’s theme: Ending the Cycle of Violence)?

Emily: Over the last several years, we have begun the process of identifying major sponsors for the IDG Summit. And while, we do not yet have a major sponsor – our partners involved in the 11 Days of Action, for example, contribute funds to help cover the costs associated with technology, program development, media-based support, and advertising. We are very lucky this year to have secured a signature sponsor for the Girls Speak Out; Janssen recognized the alignment of our missions and we are grateful for their support. The vast majority of our financial support comes from individuals, who are drawn to the cause and believe in the spirit of IDG, and our approach to engaging girls in this global movement.

Our mission is truly made real because of our IDG Summit partners and we could not put on the Girls Speak Out, 11 Days of Action, or IDG Webcast without their time, energy, and passion. A few of our key partners for these initiatives include (in no particular order): Coalition for Adolescent Girls, Working Group on Girls, Plan International’s Because I am a Girl Campaign, Alice Paul Institute, Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, Girls Learn International, SPARK Movement, Girls Coalition of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Women & Girls Foundation, I am a Girl Documentary, Teach a Girl to Lead, Pink Lemonade Stand Foundation, Girl Scouts of the USA, Intel and many others.

BLaP: Where do you see the movement headed over the next 5 years?

Emily: Over the next 5 years, I would expect the girls’ rights movement to continue to grow locally and globally. I think we will see an increase in the numbers of girls speaking out about issues in their communities, and bringing attention to how they advocate for change. I hope to see more collaboration amongst girl-centered organizations and also see more opportunities for girls to speak for themselves at high level, international, national and local events. In the spirit of IDG, I think it is critical that girls speak for girls and that they have the chance to advocate for their rights, and challenge the global injustices faced by girls daily.

BLaP: How can we help support your mission?

Emily: We invite everyone to join in any or all of our initiatives for IDG. Join the 11 Days of Action campaign which starts Oct. 1 – Oct. 11th on our website; everyday one of our partner organizations will organize an action for girls to take via social media to raise awareness about girls’ rights and power globally. Participate in the Oct. 11th Webcast, which includes a Twitter chat, Google Hangout, and film screening of Raising Ms President. Or come to the Girls Speak Out at the United Nations on October 10th – and if you can’t come in person, watch the event LIVE on our website at 3PM EST. We will also feature some of the performances on our website throughout the month of October.

Support our Indiegogo Campaign and help ensure that we can continue to bring girls’ voices to the United Nations, and engage girls through the IDG Summit signature initiatives. You can get an official IDG T-Shirt or join the 1st Global Girls Delegation for IDG! https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/international-day-of-the-girl-summit-idg2014

And of course, follow us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DayoftheGirlSummit) or Twitter @IDG2014 to keep the conversation going about girls’ empowerment globally.

Thank you, Emily, for your time with this interview, as well as for all the work you do to continue helping girls around the world live a safer and more illustrious life. When girls thrive, the world thrives.

Please help support the conversation by sharing this information with all your friends and, as always, thanks for stopping by Beyond Lipstick and Petticoats!

On The Importance of the Global Education of Girls

photo (98)I remember sitting on the sofa, listening to my grandmother’s stories about her coming-of-age days during the final years of WWII. After her high school graduation she entered the work force in The City (that would be New York City, of course), where she and her fellow office girls defied cultural and professional dress codes by painting tan, narrow stripes down the backs of their calves in an effort to look as if they were wearing those highly-rationed, rare extravagances otherwise known as stockings. On the weekends she and her sisters frequented the local USO where, as Billy Joel once sang, men “ask(ed) them to dance, dance(d) with ‘em slow”. On one of those USO visits she met and fell in love with a young sailor. The romance ended shortly after the war ended, but Handsome Sailor left my grandmother with a precious memento of their love affair: my mother.

By the time my mom was two years old, my grandmother found herself a single mother in the late 1940s. She moved in with her mother and continued working in an effort to support herself and her daughter. Feeling stuck and overwhelmed, she married a man who didn’t treat her well in exchange for putting a roof over their heads.

My mother, on the other hand, attempted to pursue her educational dreams by enrolling at the local junior college after high school graduation. She, too, met a handsome young sailor and, anxious to set up her own home and enjoy some element of independence from her parents, said yes when Dad proposed. They married at the tender ages of 20 and 19. Two kids and eight years later, Mom realized that the independence she was looking for was not just breaking away from her parents by moving out of her childhood home but the growth, maturity, and self-confidence that only comes from learning how to support yourself both financially and emotionally.

Both my mom and grandmother demonstrate the motivation behind the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s: to allow women and girls other options for their academic and economical future than they were historically provided. For my mom and grandmother, and many of their contemporaries, the normal cycle of life dictated that they meet a boy, fall in love, get married, and have babies. But what if women wanted something more? (Gasp!) What if the intellectual stimulation offered by college classes and assignments helped them attain economic independence from their parents? What if the gratification and self-confidence obtained from working in a career that excited them led to more fulfilling relationships with their husbands, children, and peers? And what if those same jobs helped keep their families out of poverty or served to enhance the quality of life and educational opportunities for future generations?

Fortunately for me, the second generation women’s movement meant greater opportunities and options for girls. Unlike the youthful days of my mother and grandmother, attending university in the 1980s was no longer a luxury afforded only to boys – or wealthy girls whose families sent them off to school to look for a suitable husband. Thanks to federal legislation that created more funding sources combined with the efforts of the State of Florida to provide better access to higher education to more of its students, enrollment in the University of Florida was very much a realistic and attainable goal for me. In fact, in my mother’s eyes, obtaining a college degree was the ONLY option available to me when I graduated from high school.

So, two months after my anti-climatic graduation from high school, Mom loaded me and my foot locker full of earthly belongings into her car and drove me to that beautiful campus of red brick, Gothic buildings covered with thick ivy and surrounded by stately live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Then, after waving good-bye to my mom as she drove away, in the words of the ever-inspiring Indigo Girls, “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper, and I was free”.

For me, those four years of learning and maturing, followed by a couple of years earning a decent living, helped me grow into a stronger, more independent woman and, eventually, a better companion for my husband and sound role model for my sons and daughters – something my mom and grandmother both envisioned when they encouraged me to pursue my education before committing to marriage and raising a family.

While we must continue our diligence to overcome such issues as domestic violence, poverty, and the lingering gender stereotypes that inhibit girls’ educational opportunities here in the United States, we must also now turn our attention toward the extreme discrimination against girls throughout the world that inhibits their ability to experience the same opportunities for economic independence and growth that I found in the 1980s. As stated by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard,

“I think across the world, as we talk about women in developing countries, there’s been increasing recognition that empowering women and girls is a key change agent for development. There have been some truly shocking incidents that have caused us to have tears in our eyes and sharply intake our breath—what happened to Malala, what has happened with the Nigerian schoolgirls—that powerfully remind us that in some part of the world, getting an education is still a very dangerous thing for a girl. Education is powerful, which is why some people want to stop it and why we should feel so passionate about assuring that it occurs.”

This week world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly have discussed the issues surrounding gender inequality. Goodwill ambassador for U.N. Women, Emma Watson, delivered an inspiring speech about feminism while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed U.N. delegates regarding the impact of the Clinton Global Initiative and its future goals. This focus on girls and education leads us to the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2014, where leaders in promoting worldwide education equality will celebrate the progress made toward girls’ global education these past twenty years as well as look to the future and what remains to be done in order to continue to help make education safe and accessible for girls everywhere.

Remember, only when girls and women have the same educational and economic opportunities as boys and men will we then be able to truly overcome poverty.

On the Definition of Feminism

Woman_suffrage_headquarters_ClevelandRecently a friend posed the following question on her  Facebook page: “What is your definition of ‘feminism’?”

I read several of the responses listed in her comments section and then added my own reply, which is my personal interpretation of the definition found in Webster’s Dictionary: “To me, it (feminism) means that women should have the same education and career opportunities as men. Period.”

While most of the respondents wrote similar definitions to mine, I must admit that I was a bit surprised that some women still find themselves hesitant to identify with the term, feminism, due to perceived negative connotations that continue to accompany a word that strives to promote gender equality.

In order to more thoroughly understand why feminism carries such a vast array of definitions, we must first look at the history of feminism as a doctrine and examine its political impact throughout history. Feminism, by its very definition, requires action. Those who work to create a society that protects gender equality must look at the current state of a government’s policies and address the fairness of any laws and practices that result from such guidelines.  Additionally, throughout history the politics surrounding gender equality have been closely related to religion in that many traditional patriarchal religious beliefs often dictated the distribution of power between the sexes. Thus, when women suffragists in the United States confronted the political status quo, not only were they criticized for disrupting the country’s existing customs and beliefs, but they were also viewed as challenging church doctrine. Keeping this in mind, as well as the fact that even among the suffragists there was often great dissension over the direction in which the movement should proceed, it is no wonder that modern feminism also carries mixed feelings when discussed.

The introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960’s brought about a new wave of feminism, closely linking the movement to reproductive rights and sexuality as women more openly discussed the notion that the ability to plan for pregnancy (and the newfound freedom to plan against pregnancy) provided them the same opportunities for employment and economic advancement as men. And, as the Supreme Court delivered its opinion in the historic Roe v. Wade case, abortion rights also got added to the mix when discussing reproductive rights.

Suddenly feminism became a fight of “us against them”.

However, in my opinion, feminism is not a case of, “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” Instead, feminism is simply the notion that women, as human beings, deserve the right to pursue whatever interests they desire. They should be allowed to follow their dreams, whatever those dreams may be. Just like not all men will study to be lawyers or doctors, not all women aspire to the traditionally female roles of wives or mothers or teachers or nurses. We should support one another no matter what our individual personal goals might be. Working mother, stay-at-home mom, corporate CEO, English teacher, politician, single, married, gay – these differences are not things to argue over. They are experiences that we can share with each other in an effort to educate one another on the variety of lifestyle choices that create a healthy, industrious, and enlightened civilization. All of us, male and female, possess various individual talents that enable us to contribute to society as a whole. Without the opportunity to study or work toward our goals we become unproductive citizens, unable to add value to the world around us.

And that, to me, would be a waste of humanity.

Just as the term, “love”, can be used in a variety of contexts, so, too can the term, “feminism”. And it is important to remember that we all reserve the right to use either term in the manner which we choose. All too often, in an attempt to maintain their own identity when discussing a term that has become a label, women apologize for their belief in gender equality.

It’s time we stop apologizing for our belief that women deserve the same rights as men.

On “Writer’s Block”

Manymother and daughter days I sit and stare at my blank computer page while dozens of ideas flow through my head. They start at one side of my brain, squiggle their way into the area just behind my forehead – where I spend a few minutes contemplating them – and then quickly race off as the next set of ideas chases them away, demanding that I move my focus from the old, fleeting thoughts to the newer, stronger, prettier ones. And, of course you know what happens, right? Yup. I wind up with nothing on the page.

Today I found myself sitting in front of my laptop, contemplating all kinds of topics such as what cultural triggers caused my mother and grandmother to marry at young ages, even though they preferred to pursue their own educational or professional interests, or the various ever-present issues surrounding the treatment of girls in sports. I even spent a few minutes basking in the joy of observing my daughter share an article on her Twitter feed about the continued economic importance of women’s access to birth control.

And I wondered to myself, “What, if anything, does any of this have to do with celebrating women? How do I write about any of these topics and bring about some sort of resolution?”

While admittedly these topics are quite broad and individually provide enough fodder for blog posts of their own, I think for today I will just keep them together and address the importance of the fact that not a day passes that I don’t think about things that affect women in some way or another. And neither should you.

For example, think, for just a second, about your mom. Did you ever take time to find out what motivates her to pursue the interests that she does? What are her greatest achievements? Does she have any regrets? Why did she make the decisions she did that led her to her present stage in life? Were her decisions based on cultural ideals that dictated “proper” behavior at that time? Or were they based on goals and dreams she – and perhaps those whom she admired and respected – designed for herself? If you, like me, have spent energy researching and contemplating these things, then good for you! You, too, are celebrating women on a regular basis simply by harboring a genuine interest in the lives of the women important to you.

If, however, you don’t know the answers to any of these questions, then consider yourself challenged. Go, now, and ask your mom (or your grandmother, or your sister, or your wife, or your next-door neighbor) the following questions: What motivated you to (marry/not marry, earn a degree, seek out a specific profession, have/not have children, etc.)? How did you feel you fit in with the cultural norms of your youth? Or, did you not fit in? How do you feel about your decision now? What was your greatest achievement and why? What are your hopes and dreams for girls and women of the future?

Take time to learn about the women around you.

After all, knowledge is power, and once all of us learn to appreciate the importance of allowing our girls to pursue their hopes and dreams in the same manner we allow our boys to do so, our economies strengthen, our world grows safer, and our lives become more enriched.

On Learning About Feminism

Antioch College, in Yellow  Springs, OH, was the first college in the country to admit both non-whites and women with equal status to white men (Wikipedia)

Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, OH, was the first college in the country to admit both non-whites and women with equal status to white men (Wikipedia)

In January of 1985 I embarked on my second semester of my freshman year in college. As I scheduled my classes for the upcoming spring, I determined that this semester would be different from the last semester: I resolved to earn an ‘A’ in at least one class this go-around.

Since I tested out of English Comp 101, the university allowed me to enroll directly into Comp 102, which suited me just fine because I fancied myself a budding writer looking for the tools I needed to pursue my personal goal of writing the next Great American Novel, and to do so I needed to get the boring preliminary classes out of the way as quickly as possible.  Time was of the essence here, you know.

Imagine my surprise and displeasure when my PhD candidate-grad assistant-professor informed me after grading my first essay that I would not, under any circumstances, make an ‘A’ in her class.

I withdrew from her office, holding my butchered-with-red-ink, ‘C’ graded, pathetic composition at arm’s length from my body as I trudged back to my dorm, ready to cry and change my major to the much less subjective field of Computer Science (the major my dad recommended I study in the first place. Hooray for STEM-minded dads!).

Through some miraculous feat of determination (and the lack of anything better to do during the hour-and-a-half allotted to my schedule for Comp 102), I managed to continue attending her class and scraped out a ‘B+’ for my final semester grade. And, in the process, this remarkable professor taught me two things that stayed with me for the rest of my life: avoid using ‘to be’ verbs as much as possible in my writing, and – despite my personal upbringing where my family placed my brother and me on equal footing with regard to education and career choices – women continue to struggle to achieve the respect they need for their professional and personal success.

My professor focused her PhD thesis on pop culture and its effects on women in social situations. She theorized that there was a direct correlation between the prolific distribution of porn and the increase in date-rape crimes on college campuses. I participated in a focus group she hosted (for extra credit, of course – how else do you think I managed to obtain the highest grade possible in her class?) that discussed the use of pornographic images in music videos, magazine ads, and movies and how these images turned women into one-dimensional sex objects instead of living, breathing human beings capable of making their own decisions – especially in regard to what happens to their bodies. In short, due to the portrayal of men as dominant over women, pop culture reiterated the idea that boys reserved the right to treat girls as possessions instead of equal human beings capable of making their own decisions about their sexuality, career pursuits, family planning, and so on.

My participation in this focus group awakened me to the idea that not everyone looked at women as intellectually equal to men. Two years later, as I sat in my business classes populated by a disproportionate amount of male to female students, I further recognized the prevalence of sexist attitudes in Corporate America when a male professor pointed out that, at the time, only a minority of Fortune 500 companies boasted female executives (God bless him for even discussing the topic in class.) My burgeoning feminist beliefs reached full maturation when, as an assistant manager with Wal-Mart in 1989, I learned that my district manager took it upon himself (as in, without my permission) to inform the Home Office that no, I would not be interested in entering their newly designed buyer trainee program, despite the fact that they had called to personally invite me to join the program. After a brief deliberation, I decided that I would, indeed, like to relocate to the Home Office in Bentonville, AR. Unfortunately, my district manager’s assertion that I stay put caused the director of the program to withdraw his earlier invitation – a fact I didn’t learn about until two months later. Which is when I began the search for a new job.

Among some groups (most specifically, of course, intimidated men), the term “feminism” carries negative connotations. “Men haters”, “bra burners”, “radicals”, “feminazis” are just a few of the many derogatory terms used to describe those of us who believe that gender should have no bearing on a person’s ability to earn a living or pursue his or her educational interests. At times, even I have shuddered at the label, “feminism”.  And then I read the actual definition of the term:

Feminism: “The doctrine which declares that social, political, and economic rights for women be the same as those for men.” – Webster’s Dictionary

This definition does not state that feminism advocates for women to become men (or stop being feminine), nor does it declare that women are superior to men. It simply states that women – as human beings – deserve the opportunity to enjoy the same rights as men. Period. And that is a doctrine that both men and women can subscribe to with a very clear conscience. Equal educational and economic opportunities for myself and my daughters. For my friends and their daughters. For women both at home and abroad. Because, how can we expect to overcome poverty, hunger, and war if only half of the population is educated and/or employed?

How about you? When did you first identify with feminism? Did you ever experience discrimination and, if so, how did you handle the situation? Were you ever encouraged to not pursue an interest or job opportunity due to your gender? If so, tell me about it in the comments section below – I love to hear your stories!

On the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby, and Women’s Rights

Supreme Court JusticesThere is a lot of buzz around the Internet today as individuals and media outlets weigh in with their personal thoughts and opinions regarding the Supreme Court’s narrow support in favor of Hobby Lobby’s assertion that providing insurance coverage that pays for certain  birth control methods for employees violates their religious freedom. While I feel it is a dangerous position to start protesting Supreme Court decisions (they, after all, DO possess a much greater understanding about the constitution than I), I can’t help but wonder what on earth they were thinking in this instance.

As I often do when I feel inundated with editorials and public verdicts regarding controversial subjects, I turned to the Brookings Institution for guidance and clearer understanding. Fortunately, I found the following piece that offers educated insight on the recent SCOTUS ruling:

http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/fixgov/posts/2014/06/30-hobby-lobby-religious-freedom-rauch

I encourage all of you to head over and read this post, as it explains some nuances that most of the general public won’t understand (although, it also points out the dangers of allowing corporations to disregard government regulations on the basis of religious freedom). Most importantly, the article explains the difference in a constitutional ruling versus an interpretation of a statute.

Unfortunately, though, this ruling does have implications regarding the public’s regard and treatment of women, which are very succinctly outlined in my daughter’s Facebook post today:

“I cannot say this better than my UChicago classmate, so I’m copy/pasting her statement:

‘Upon learning that I’ve spent time in India and care deeply about engaging with the region’s culture, people often point to stories in Western media regarding the status of women in Indian society (mainly focusing on stories of rape), posing in many ways questions that essentially ask, “How can you reconcile with the way women are treated over there? How can you handle it?”
Many of these people – my friends, family, classmates – seem to lose sight of the fact that they, too, live in a society that marginalizes women and limits opportunities for more than half the population every day.
Of course, there are varying degrees of aggression. I don’t mean to equate atrocities such as the – now infamous – rape in Delhi on a public bus in December 2012 with this less (overtly; physically) violent court decision, but I feel it incredibly important to think critically and be aware of the systemic and institutionalized nature of gender inequality that acts similarly and is perpetuated in each case.
This post could be about many things – neo-colonialism, capitalism, media sensationalism and how we consider our own learned cultural norms. But it all boils down to this: next time you think about the way that women are treated “over there,” check your American exceptionalism (however subconcious it may be), and take a second to consider how your mothers, sisters, daughters, friends – how YOU – are treated as lesser and other within the ostensible structure of freedom on which we pride ourselves so greatly. How can you handle it?'”

So, I suppose the question for the Supreme Court now is this, “What, if any, implications do you see developing as a result of this ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby? Does this ruling then open up a new case for the constitutionality of such denials by corporations? And how will such a ruling affect similar medical procedures for men – most specifically, medications and procedures associated with erectile dysfunction or vasectomy?”

Any thoughts?

On Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou recites her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at the 1993 presidential inauguration

Maya Angelou recites her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”, at the 1993 presidential inauguration

I stood in the kitchen with my back leaned up against the counter by the stove, and scrolled through my phone apps while I waited for the painters to arrive (I can write and sell stuff, Hubs can practice law, but neither of us is handy with a hammer. Or a paintbrush. Oh, well.) As I scanned my Facebook page and read about my friends’ various activities during the past twenty-four hours, I spied one particular post that made my breath catch in my throat for a brief second.

Maya Angelou Dies – American Poet Laureate Dead at 86

It’s not like I wasn’t expecting it. I knew she was ill – after all, I’d read it on Facebook a few days ago (and, let’s face it: these days Facebook is more reliable than Fox or MSNBC, and sometimes even CNN). I also surmised that the illness must have been serious since she cancelled her plans to attend the civil rights game hosted by Major League Baseball, where she was to be honored with the Beacon of Life Award. But, Maya Angelou? Dead? The reality hit me like a swift punch to the stomach. No more words of inspiration from this woman who overcame the insurmountable obstacles of poverty, racism, sexism, and an unplanned pregnancy only to emerge as one of the most notable American literary figures of the twentieth century. No more listening to that sultry, melodious voice as she relays stories of her life in Arkansas or New York or St. Louis or Europe. No more lessons learned from a woman who gained copious amounts of wisdom from a life lived with gusto and passion.

No more Maya.

I remember the first time I was introduced to Dr. Angelou. It wasn’t, as one might suspect, when I was in college, not even during the two years I studied as an English Lit major. Instead, I learned about the likes of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Sylvia Plath during those years. My first encounter with the great poet and orator was when I watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony in 1993. I was pregnant with my first child – just pregnant enough to no longer possess a flat stomach – enjoying a day off from work, nursing the constant nausea that accompanied my first trimester of pregnancy, and listening to the details of the inauguration emanating from the television as I worked around the house. I remember I heard an introduction of some poet and an explanation regarding the historic significance of her presence that day because the last president to have a poet at an inauguration was President Kennedy, some thirty years earlier. And then she spoke. That voice, that beautiful, rich, sensuous, articulate, commanding voice that immediately beckoned me away from the stack of laundry I was folding and over to the couch situated in front of the TV just to catch a glimpse of the women who claimed that voice as her own. I was intrigued. Shortly after, I visited the local library and checked out I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And then I knew. I knew why the president invited her to his inauguration. I knew why her voice was so resonant. I understood her careful articulation of the words she spoke. And I understood what her presence on that stage meant. And I fell in love all over again.

Amid all the press, comments, and expressions of sorrow yesterday, I read a quote that described my feelings about Maya Angelou so precisely I wrote it down to put on my desk for daily remembrance:

To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has.” Gary Younge, writer for The Guardian, 2009

Her first autobiography is so expertly written that it transports the reader back in time and places her right smack in the middle of a completely foreign culture: the Black Deep South.  Together with Maya I witnessed the same horrors, love, confusion, and intimidation that she did. And I learned about a way of life that, up until that moment, I had very little understanding and appreciation for. Because to live in the south is one thing, but to live in the south as a Black girl in the middle of the twentieth century is another thing, altogether.

Her experiences as a child and young adult were enough to wear most of us out and cause us to just be happy to make it from one day to the next. But, to overcome all those obstacles and then stand on stage at a presidential inauguration, read a piece of poetry she wrote and then turn around and have the President of the United States embrace her with sincere exuberance and appreciation? Well, I don’t know how she did it.

Over the past few years I have followed her Facebook page and marveled at the wisdom and honesty of her posts, much as I did that first day I heard her speak. Her comments of encouragement and hope still move me every time I read one of her quotes. And, now, as I contemplate what her life and work mean to me, I wonder if I can ever measure up to that person she admonished all of us to become whenever she spoke. Will any of us be what she hoped we would be?

The best we can do to honor her memory is to try to do just that: Be the best we can be, in spite of our circumstances and background, and remember that, while life is hard, it is worth living to its fullest.

Please feel free to take a minute and share your thoughts on Maya Angelou’s passing in the comments section below.

On Education and Girls

School girl in Sri Lanka

School girl in Sri Lanka

All my life my mother encouraged me to attend college, obtain a degree, and procure a job before I married. Her reasoning for pushing me toward an education and a career rested on the fact that for many women in her generation college – and its resulting career path – was not a viable option available to them. In 1965 Congress passed the Higher Education Act (HEA), which created Federal funding opportunities for students from low-income families. In 1972 the HEA was further enhanced by the passage of Title IX, as well as various amendments through the late 1970’s, thus making college a realistic option for low- and middle-income students, especially women. By the time I graduated from high school, in 1984, government grants and various scholarships created options for higher education for anyone who chose to continue his or her education beyond the secondary level, not just the very wealthy.

These changes – especially Title IX – instituted a shift in the population demographic at colleges and universities across the U.S. At my alma mater, the University of Florida, which did not admit women until 1947, the number of women enrollees has exceeded men since 1998. This trend mirrors the rest of the country, where women have steadily outnumbered men at both public and private colleges and universities since the 1970’s, bringing the ratio of male to female students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions to 40-60.

So, what does all this mean for women and Society in general?

It means greater opportunity for our girls. It means greater opportunity for our economy. It means better, more fulfilling adulthood, marriages, and families for our children – both our boys and our girls.

It means that our country thrives when ALL members have equal opportunity for education and employment.

Knowing how education of all children benefits our society here in the U.S., imagine how global poverty might be impacted if girls around the world are provided the same educational opportunities as boys. The effects of educating girls and reducing global illiteracy rates can be seen through the efforts of such groups as Save the Children and the United Nations. When women are educated, they are “more likely to send their children (especially girls) to school, become more economically self-reliant, and more actively engaged in their country’s social, political, and cultural life.” (Global Female Illiteracy by Nadiya Omar)

While major obstacles exist in areas such as rural Pakistan (where the literacy rate among women is a mere 8%) and Guinea (where the literacy rate for men is 50% compared to 26% for women), both government and non-government organizations are making some headway in demonstrating the positive impact and economic importance of educating girls. Infant mortality rates, juvenile deaths, maternal childbirth fatalities, credit services, and economic prosperity are all linked to literacy. Unfortunately, many extremely rural areas are dominated by religious culture that prohibits educating girls – a gross misinterpretation of Islam – and thus leaders of these communities are most resistant to instituting change in their educational practices. (Omar) Fortunately, the United Nations, through the work of its various branches such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and UNGEI (United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative) has led the way in combating global illiteracy by launching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are part of the Global Partnership for Development. In 2000, world leaders adopted eight goals, set to be achieved by 2015, that are both global and local. The main purpose of the MDGs is to ensure that human development will reach everyone, everywhere, cutting world poverty in half, thereby saving tens of millions of lives.

Educating girls clearly sits at the top of this list of goals.

Organizations such as The Borgen Project, CARE, Camfed, Central Asia Institute, Developments in Literacy, and The Girl Effect all work toward improving educational opportunities for girls throughout the world.  Through the power of technology you, too, can get involved in educating the world’s girls. Simply click on any of the above links, or head over to Educating Girl Matters, and select the organization that appeals to you and your concerns. All of these organizations provide information about the global crisis of illiteracy among girls as well as ways individuals can get involved in helping overcome the crisis.

So, go, click, learn, and help. But don’t go without telling us about your own educational experiences in the comments section below! Did your family promote education for girls? Were you aware of the crisis of illiteracy among women? Do you currently support these or any other organizations that work to educate girls?

On Golf Digest and Paulina Gretzky

spring iphone 2012 076My boys love the game of golf. They love the lingo: “Hey, Mom, have you seen my balls?” “Dad, I need a stiffer shaft.” (Get your minds out of the gutter – that is legitimate golfing terminology. The boys use these terms when discussing their equipment. Their golf equipment. Geesh.) They love the Golf Channel and Holly Sonders. They love the 19th hole. And, of course, they love playing round after round with the other fine gentlemen who frequent our local golf course.

Like the good mom I am, I, too, have grown to appreciate the finer points of golf – such as enjoying a glass of wine along with appetizers while seated on the golf course veranda watching the boys practice nearby and offering up a silent prayer of gratitude over the fact that I never have to discuss their wardrobe choices whenever they head out to the course in their club-approved attire of golf slacks and polos.

I even attended a practice round at the 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago.

My knowledge of all things golf increases daily. For instance, I have learned that one son’s favorite golfer is Tiger while the other son has had his tweets re-tweeted by golf pro Dustin Johnson.

Which leads me to today’s topic.

What the heck was Golf Digest thinking when they put Paulina Gretzky – Dustin Johnson’s fiancé – on this month’s cover?

Yes, she’s gorgeous and her dad is hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. Also, I’m sure she’s a great girl. But, people, she’s not a golfer. At least former college golf standout Holly Sonders actually works in the industry (the popular Golf Channel personality appeared on the cover of Golf Digest in May 2013). To make things worse, Golf Digest decided to use pictures of Gretzky in capri leggings and a sports bra for its May issue. Because every golf course accepts sports bras and capris as appropriate golfing attire.

No, actually, the bra top is there because sex sells, and Golf Digest – the country’s leading golf publication – has stooped to selling sex instead of information about the game of golf.

So, why all the controversy?

Because there are plenty of women golfers who actually play golf for a living and are much more deserving of gracing the cover of a magazine whose main objective is to disseminate information about the sport than some guy’s pretty girlfriend with cleavage in a halter top.

Over 450 women belong to the LPGA – the longest continuing women’s professional sports organization in the United States – and, to date, LPGA players have only appeared solo on the cover of Golf Digest eleven times since 1969. The most recent cover featuring an LPGA player was with Lorena Ochoa back in August 2008.

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See, here we are on Broadway.

I realize that the magazine wants to sell issues. I also know that magazines – Golf Digest included – often use models and celebrities to attract readers. But to feature a scantily clad woman whose only connection to the sport is the fact that she is engaged to a professional golfer is like putting me on the cover of Broadway magazine just because I saw Wicked last March. (Although, I WOULD make a great Elsa in Disney’s upcoming Broadway production of Frozen. I can really belt out those high notes in “Let it Go”. Watch out, Idina Menzel.)

Yes, featuring Paulina Gretzky on the cover of Golf Digest will bring recognition to the magazine. And I’m sure my boys will spend plenty of time examining Gretzky’s cleavage grip when their issue arrives in the mail. But that’s not what results in gaining subscribers for the long run. Because, the truth is, if men just want a magazine that shows women in bikinis there are plenty of others to choose from. Putting Gretzky on the cover and attempting to justify the decision as anything other than a gratuitous sales ploy is insulting to our intelligence. For the most part, Golf Digest subscribers actually want to read about golf. The boys who pick up the Gretzky issue at the newsstand will be “one and done” – not dedicated golf enthusiasts eager to learn how to fix their slice or break 80 on their next round out on the links.

And as for women golfers? Well, I doubt the magazine will enjoy an increase in female subscribers for quite some time after this blatant display of sexism. Which is really too bad because one of the great things about golf is that it is a game that both men and women, young and old, can play and compete in together.

So, I’ve had my rant. Now it’s your turn. What do you think? Have you heard about the Paulina Gretzky cover? Do you find Golf Digest’s decision to put her on its cover offensive? What do you think about the magazine industry’s penchant for employing underhanded techniques in an effort to sell more issues at the newsstand? Is there a problem – and, if so, is there a solution? Keep the discussion going in the comments section below!