Dressing for Success?

Walking from the subway to the Graduate Center, where I teach, I pass by the shop window of the Garment Center, or at least what it’s become since its heyday. Some of the stores sell only wholesale (Al Por Mayor, bilingually); others tempt passers-by with clothing racks strategically positioned outside the store, heterogeneous tops and bottoms, all for $10. I peer inside and try to imagine who wears this clothing and where.

IMG_0424If I were to enter, would I find anything to wear? Certainly nothing to teach in.

In what universe would a woman, what woman, wear an evening gown like this? Clearly, I’m not the intended shopper, even if I’ve stopped in front of the window, fascinated. I can’t help feeling that I’m missing out on a lot of fun and glamour. I think this is called cultural dissonance.

When I was growing up, my grandfather had a tailoring shop in this same neighborhood, one flight up on 35th Street, off Seventh Avenue. He sold men’s suits, but he also made coats for his grandchildren in beautiful fabrics–serge, gabardine–with handmade buttonholes and sleek linings. He cut and Harry sewed, bent over the sewing machine, his lips closed over pins.

If the photo album tells the story, we were well-dressed little girls. Not that we appreciated the details at the time.

On the few bare building surfaces that remain, in this area dotted with quickly constructed glass skyscrapers, you can still see traces of that era―dresses hand painted on the walls. Soon even they will be gone.

I have very few childhood memories, surprising, perhaps, for a memoirist. But the atmosphere of quiet creation inside my grandfather’s shop, reached only after navigating the treacherous racks of dresses and coats being pushed along the sidewalks at breakneck speed, is a scene I now return to weekly, as I thread my way to work.

Alpha Females Tell Us How to Do It All

Why do women who have what they think other women want–the magical trifecta of ALL: husband, kids, big job―feel the need to tell women who don’t “have it all” (whether they want it or not) how to have (or “do”) this elusive ALL?

15STYLESQA2-popupAnd why invent or repurpose words like “leaning in” or “satisficing” (accepting second best―the B+ life, or maybe, if you’re lucky, an A-) to express this so-called analysis in bestselling, or soon to be bestselling books? Who is reading these books ?

Why invoke the legacy of seventies feminism as the main cause for contemporary women’s failure to reach this pinnacle of satisfaction with an S? Perhaps the need to bend the language to express the argument offers a clue to their misreading of a feminism that as I recall had quite other goals.

It would be difficult to find recommendations for climbing the ladder of success in the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, or Germaine Greer, to name a few. As I recall the days of feminist consciousness-raising groups, the goal and dream was to find some measure of fulfillment in some realm of our own lives, but also to work for concrete improvement in the lives of other women, perhaps less fortunate. This heartbreaking article about women who, no matter how hard they try, cannot afford a home that is not a communal shelter, is a painful reminder of how relative all success for women is.


I don’t have it all, and I don’t know anyone who does or thinks she does.

We used to complain about men telling us what we want. Now we have to hear it from other women.

Difficult Women

Say a woman is “difficult,” and chances are that she will not get the job, the promotion, or the invitation to join the club. The adjective guarantees pariahdom. And yet as the New York Times Book Review launches a new feature of its redesign, “The Shortlist,” it groups four books about so-called “difficult women” framed by a collage of women’s cut-up faces and bright-red lips. True, if you reconstructed the fragments, the faces would be beautiful, but in their cubist presentation they also look vaguely evil. Why burden very different books with the label of negative gender stereotypes?


As in the recent NYTBR’s “Memoirs by Women,” “Difficult Women” is a hodge-podge of novels with vastly different styles and subjects: Terry McMillan’s new novel, Who Asked You, Chelsea Cain’s detective novel Let Me Go, Nicole Galland’s historical excursion, Godiva, and Kate Manning’s biographical novel, cast as a memoir, My Notorious Life. While Cain’s heroine sounds seriously, not to say, serially dangerous– capable of decapitation and disembowelment–the female figures of the three other novels are merely heroic or powerful.

Is it churlish not to see a silver lining here? After all, it’s four books by women writers, reviewed (somewhat condescendingly) by a woman writer, and four is better than one or none, if we’re doing it by the numbers. Still, what really is gained by lumping together books that have nothing in common beyond the gender of their authors and the assumption that their characters are best avoided?

To be fair, in the description of the new feature, the women are described as “defiant.”
So why not make that the heading?

Defiant is cool.

The Shame of Self-Promotion

On the cover of this week’s issue of The Economist, an intriguing headline reads: “Why women should boast more.” I took the hook.

I don’t read The Economist on a regular basis, but its writers often bring an interesting angle to their reporting. In this case, the article ponders a subject close to my heart, the place of of women in academia. Why is it that in most fields, not just science and engineering, “male professors” in the “higher echelons” seem to outnumber “females by nearly four to one.”

There have been several explanations put forward to account for the disparity―most famously Larry Summers’ incendiary remarks in 2005 at Harvard about the innate differences between male and female brains.


Footnote: It seems that the President shares Summers’ belief in his own superiority, and that this will lead Obama once again to miss a golden opportunity to appoint a highly qualified woman.

OK. Back to the why are there more men in upper echelon positions, as if we had ever left it.
Or, what is “more” and what is “enough”?
Professor Barbara Walter, at the University of California, San Diego, has proposed a new theory: that “female academics are not pushy enough.” Not pushy enough turns out to mean that they do not, as their male counterparts do, “routinely cite their own previous work when they publish a paper.” Citation―an easily quantifiable marker of importance―counts heavily in the decisions made by appointment committees, and therefore favors male promotion. Exactly why this gender difference in the matter of citation exists remains to be analyzed but Walter’s research evidence suggests that “women see self-citation as a form of self-promotion, and thus look down on it. Men see it the same way, but draw different conclusions.”

Do women frown on self-promotion? Is what’s true in academia also true in the literary world? In my entirely unscientific survey I’ve tried to think of whether I’ve ever received an email from a male writer apologizing in the subject line for his “shameless self-promotion.” Whereas the phrase “shameless self-promotion” has appeared in almost every email message I’ve received over the past few years from women writers apologizing in advance for sharing the news of their book publication, or any public recognition of their accomplishments. I understand the rhetorical gesture without difficulty, and I am sure that I have used the phrase myself in the past. How can you do what you have to do as a writer―promote yourself since your publisher won’t (unless you are John Grisham or E.L. James)–if you don’t beg forgiveness for intruding on your friends and colleagues in order to borrow a few seconds of their precious attention? It would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it, to act as if you didn’t realize that you were indulging in shameless self-promotion, and not just sharing your good news.

Or is shameless self-promotion just a variant of what Sheryl Sandburg means by “leaning in?” Maybe if women shamelessly self-promoted more often, they wouldn’t have to call it shameless self-promotion. Self-promotion would not feel shameful.

As for my latest shameful promotion of recent work, please visit my self-named website www.nancykmiller.com.