Lemurs and Leaders: The Cooperation Thing…

I recently came across the obituary of Alison Jollylemur, a primatologist who studied lemurs and wrote definitive studies of this species.

I might not have stopped over the obituary if it hadn’t been for the provocative headline “Alison Jolly, Who Found Female Dominance in Lemurs, Dies at 76.” I also happen to know Alison Jolly’s daughter, the feminist scholar Margaretta Jolly. I almost met Alison Jolly at Margaretta’s home last summer after a conference in Brighton, and I regret now more than ever our missed encounter.

I confess that I know―knew―nothing about lemurs; nor did I know that my friend’s mother was a world-renowned expert in her field. From studying the ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar, Jolly concluded that all females of this species, “whether dominant or subordinate in the female hierarchy, are dominant over males.”  For details on what Jolly discovered and loved about lemurs, including their “ringtails in a question mark,” hear her interview.

Although according to the obituary in The Economist (March 1, 2014), Jolly did not label herself feminist, she admitted that “her interest in cooperation was probably a female thing.”

Her findings, she argued boldly, showed that “pace Darwin, evolution was not all about competition, tools and weapons led by males; but also about integration and cooperation, led by females. Intelligence had evolved from both.”

Because I’m always attracted to weird juxtapositions, I found myself pondering the contrast between the anthropologist’s findings and the piece in the Times about directors of art museums: “Study Finds a Gender Gap at the Top Museums.” I doubt that this disparity came as news to anyone―where isn’t there a gender gap in top whatevers?―but what struck me was the analysis that while “many of the skills that women bring are collaboration, working well with boards,” they “do worse on the visioning factor than men.”

You don’t have to believe that women in the social world are the natural descendants of female lemurs, who spend many hours establishing “social ties and hierarchies,” but it is interesting to contemplate why “vision” should weigh so much more heavily in the balance than cooperation. After all, if there isn’t cooperation and collaboration in a boardroom, chaos will reign. But the visioning factor―or what George H.W. Bush once called “the vision thing”―seems to be code for male dominance: why men “lead with their ideas” and thus get the big bucks.

Ring-Tailed-LemurI’d love to live in a world led by lemurs.

The Persistence of Boy Power

“Bullish on Boyish for Late-Night TV” reads the headline of the lead article in this week’s Sunday Times “Arts and Leisure section” (the print edition).

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 9.21.10 AM

Seven talking-head faces are featured: 6 male, 1 female. If you keep reading, you learn that the woman (whose name appears in a parenthesis) is Chelsea Handler who performs on E! Beyond the parenthesis there is no mention of WHY Chelsea Handler is the only woman to appear on late-night tv.

Full disclosure: though I recognized the names of the men, since they are much in the news, I had never heard of Chelsea Handler until my young friend Tahneer Oksman sent me this clip from YouTube:

I was happy for the introduction.

The Times offers no analysis of why the millennials, the kids of baby boomers, the much sought after target audience for late-night shows, should prefer or require the virtually all-male line-up. The question of gender never comes up. It’s the demographic, stupid.

Now I don’t watch late-night television, and haven’t seen for myself what makes these guys so popular (except for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), unless, of course, I were to DVR them to view earlier in the evening, as Fallon recommends his parents do (and as we geezers do for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report). I realize this puts me out of the cultural mainstream, but somehow I’m not moved to find out what I’m missing. Maybe it’s because the (boyish) man I lived with in the 70s insisted on going to bed with Johnny Carson (that’s mainly what I remember about our breakup, though he did introduce me to SNL); or maybe the late-night-tv-brand is just not my taste. De gustibus.

Why so few women? Maybe Tina Fey or Amy Poehler or Sarah Silverman (I know there are others but these are the names that come to mind as possible obvious choices) don’t wish to stay up late, don’t like the format, or just plain weren’t asked. Nor, presumably, were the millennial girls

In TV land, as in the literary world, as in the art world, as in…name the profession, the men in charge prefer the boys—and the boyish boys.

Why can’t they grow up?

Feminist Friends Forever: Met and Unmet.

Maxine Kumin died last week at age 88. In her typically thoughtful obituary, Margalit Fox highlights Kumin’s long life as a poet, teacher, mother, and friend.

Although I never met Kumin, I did correspond with her briefly when I edited an interview she had done with Diane Middlebrook about Anne Sexton in the early 1980s. Diane―who had been a friend of mine, though not at the time―was researching her biography of Sexton, and spent several hours with Kumin, discussing her relationship with Sexton. It was a famous friendship between two famous poets who met early in their careers.

In the late 1950s Ms. Kumin enrolled in a local poetry-writing workshop, where Ms. Sexton was also a student. They became such close friends, and such close readers of each other’s work, that each installed a dedicated phone line in her house on which to call the other. When writing, they left the receivers of the hook; the moment one finished a poem she would whistle into the open line, and the other would come running to hear it, a system that proved a supremely effective forerunner of instant messaging.


Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin at a meeting of the John Holmes workshop.

Sexton’s suicide in 1974 was shattering for Kumin, but she went on writing poetry, as well as essays, novels, short stories, children’s books, and a memoir.

Diane envied the friendship, and so did my friend Carolyn Heilbrun. Carolyn had admired Kumin for years and would have liked to write a book about her. Kumin demurred. Carolyn described her admiration for Kumin in “Unmet Friends,” an autobiographical meditation from The Last Gift of Time (1997).

For me Kumin has been a woman, vital to my sixties, whom I know in a way no biographer or friend can know her: she is her poems and essays, and what I choose to make of them. At its simplest level, she is what I might have wished to become but never could; her life seems to me a very heaven, intermingling animals and poetry.

During my brief email correspondence with Kumin, I learned that she and Carolyn had dinner together at some point in the Village. Carolyn, moreover, blurbed Kumin’s 2000 memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: “Here is a singular story of survival, an earthly miracle wrought by family devotion, gardens, horses and guts. A compelling read.” I was astonished to learn that Carolyn had finally met her unmet friend.

What we don’t know about our friends!

I (stupidly) did not save our emails, so I cannot recall exactly what Kumin told me about their encounter. Kumin did say, however, that she had been intimidated by Carolyn’s erudition. Since Carolyn had committed suicide not long after that meeting, I asked Kumin whether Carolyn seemed depressed. She said yes.

Toward the end of the obituary, Fox observes that Kumin’s work asks how, how “can one weather the losses life’s course makes inevitable?” For Kumin the answer “lay in the promise of continuity from generation to generation.” And in closing Fox quotes from a poem inspired by one of Kumin’s grandchildren.

So here is where Carolyn’s beliefs diverged dramatically from Kumin’s: Carolyn’s grandchildren, it would seem, did not help her deal with the kinds of losses she had to have felt when she decided to leave the world. Her fantasized identification with the poet ended there.

Are biological generations our only buffer against loss? Without children and grandchildren, I have come to think, or at least hope, that friends themselves―especially our younger friends―also offer that promise of continuity and solace. The value of friendship between women is one of feminism’s most precious gifts, even if in the heat of debate we sometimes forget just how precious it is.

Forward into the past!

If I hadn’t already been depressed about how the publishing world treats women writers, the article in this week’s Nation would have made me reach for my Valium (that dates me, but that’s also the point). Check it out: the graphic is stronger in the online version.

toxictwitterIn her stunning analysis of the mood in today’s the feminist blogosphere, Michelle Goldberg traces the emergence of a toxic environment in which bloggers attack one another for what appear to be incorrect political views. This is also the rhetorical activity known as trashing, long a problem in the feminist movement, well before the creation of social media. Goldberg does an excellent job of documenting the debates. The examples are striking, sometimes surprising, and so I will not try to revisit them here (especially since one of the explanations for online violence has to do with academic feminists and their unfortunate “postmodern” belief in “the power relations embedded in language”). Guilty as charged.

The list of  the complaints, critiques, screeds–how you perceive the form depends on your…location–makes for painful, if familiar, reading.

I have vivid memories of “Scholar and Feminist” conferences at Barnard College in the early 1970s. This was the era of affirmative action and consciousness-raising, and whatever the conference theme, speakers tended to be as clear and careful as possible when they articulated their positions. But no matter how thoughtful and diverse a panel of speakers was, someone always would get up and addressing, while condemning, the entire audience: “I’m an X,Y, and Z, and what you’ve said does not describe/include/value my experience.” Always.

Perhaps the saddest example is the case Goldberg cites of Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, who left Jezebel to become a columnist for the New York Times Book Review. She quotes Holmes on the parlous state of online feminism: “It’s really depressing. It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

When the Times Book Review becomes a haven, a refuge from the online world, one can only admire the irony of the digital revolution.


“‘Curiouser and curiouser,’” Cried Alice,” as she fell through the rabbit hole.
I’m so glad I never mastered the art of the tweet.

Does Size Matter?

It depends.

I’ve been struck by the attention media has lavished on the size of two women writers: Lena Dunham and Jennifer Weiner.

Does Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character in the hugely (oops) successful television series Girls, have the right to appear naked on a regular basis? Is she “too fat to qualify to have sex on cable television”?

dunhamMore pointedly, should someone whose hips and thighs are bigger than her breasts (think Renoir) play ping-pong topless, wearing only her low-rise panties over which hang a few inches of belly fat?

Should she wear shorts that emphasize the width of her rear end and the heft of her thighs? Is it plausible that lovers find her “beautiful”? Asked by an interviewer about the propensity of her character to bare her body, Dunham answers: “It’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you’re not into me, that’s your problem.”

If the opening of the show’s third season that has Hannah sitting up in bed having a bare-breasted conversation with her lover is any indication, we have not seen the last of that, shall we say, problematic body? (Oddly to me―it’s generational no doubt–comments on her extensive tattoos are rare by comparison.)

renoir70Jennifer Weiner, on the other hand, has not by any account appeared naked in public, but she has been forthright in her defense of plus-size women’s right to be fictional heroines in stories with happy endings. Weiner’s 2001 debut novel Good in Bed has been referred to as “the first ‘chick lit’ novel featuring a large protagonist.” Rebecca Mead, New Yorker, January 13, 2014. Weiner, herself, is said to be “full-figured.” Weiner has entered the fray of conversation about the literary media’s bias “against female writers, and against books written by women.”

The criticism leveled at Weiner’s best-selling novels does not address matters of size entitlement per se―neither the author’s, nor her characters’―but it’s interesting that it seems impossible to discuss either without the subject coming up.

Weiner’s recent talk at a conference focused on eating disorders was titled: “The F Word: On Growing Up Big, Speaking Out Loud and Raising Betty Friedan Girls in a Britney Spears World.”

A recent session at the MLA (Modern Language Association for those of you lucky enough not to recognize the acronym) was titled: “Girls and The F Word: Twenty-First Century Representations of Women’s Lives.” During the discussion period, we wondered what exactly the F word meant in the title: Feminist? Female? Fucking? or Fat? Maybe FAT stands for the intersection of those little f words.

Does size matter? It does not seem to matter for Governor Chris Christie. I have been fascinated by the fact that in all the rightfully horrified speculations about the man’s possible involvement in the George Washington Bridge scandal, no one brings up the man’s significant weight in relation to this performance as an elected official.  I don’t mean to suggest that Christie’s fat caused the lanes to be closed, but in the current discussions of his desirability as a presidential candidate who may recklessly have thrown his weight around, no one seems tempted to add insult to injury, which surely would happen in the case of any woman of size. But if Hannah is thought to be too fat to have sex on cable television…. then I think that Christie is too fat to be president (even if he may weigh less than President Taft, no one seems to know exactly, according to my Internet research.). Imagine that profile on Mount Rushmore!

Finally. It’s not only about size, of course, but is still always open season on women, either for their appearance or their behavior. Remember the snide remarks about Hillary Clinton’s “fat ankles”?

Of all the people who worked for Christie and who might be the ones responsible for the lane closings, only the woman Bridget Kelly, who is thin, gets called “stupid” in public by the boss who once valued her competence.

Where is Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Rosannadanna when we need her? She was always hilarious on New Jersey complaints.

This Sex Which Is Not One

Sound familiar?

Cast your mind back to Luce Irigaray’s essay (also book title). Sometimes I think everything important about women was written in the 1970s, and it’s been downhill ever since.

“Female sexuality,” the essay begins, “has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters.”

That is the sentence that jumped into my mind when I started to read the latest installment on the “gender conversation.” The article is part of a column called the “Corner Office” and it typically deals with the attitudes and beliefs of “top executives.”


In this case the author focused on four women about leadership styles, and reports “frustration with the stubbornly low number of women in executive suites.” I was interested to learn that having an executive suite―emphasis on suite, presumably―says volumes about your standing in a given company: the next step, I presume, after the office with a window and a corner office. (I wonder if it also means your own bathroom.)

The women interviewed (including as an add-on an interview with Janet Yellen) all sound completely intelligent and thoughtful (one even quoted Adrienne Rich about dutiful daughters), but mostly the women accept, however reluctantly, that success entails negotiating with the status quo―the way things are, those “masculine parameters.” Only one woman seems proactive. When asked what steps women can take to have their voices heard, Doreen Lorenzo reports on strategies worked out in women’s groups that meet after work. I especially like one that deals with what to do if “you’re treated like a secretary.” Say something like “We’re going to end the conversation until you listen to me. If you can’t listen to different opinions, we shouldn’t be having this meeting.” I can think of many times I would have liked to say that when I was a young, untenured faculty member.

Readers were invited to give their own advice before the column appeared. In a side bar, several of the responses are cited. My favorite awful recommendation could have come straight from the columns of Seventeen magazine from the 1950s. How can girls become more popular? Get more dates? “My honest advice for women early in their careers is to ‘play the game.’ What I mean is, engage in banter. Get to know what your superiors are into, and be able to engage with them in conversation about those topics.” Sound familiar? Learn to discuss baseball, cars. Be interested in what HE is interested in.

The fly in the ointment of my argument, of course, is that Irigaray posited a universe (however utopian or rhetorical) in which women would live in a world shaped by their values. Not exactly the business world.

But perhaps all is not lost.

Three female Republican women have joined forces, despite their overall low numbers, to come up with a viable deal to break the deadlock created by the partisan divide: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Kelly Ayote. Despite their ideological differences, they found a way to join forces: “we are used to working together in a collaborative way.” Macho McCain uttered, jokingly, it seems, the predictable reaction: “The women are taking over.” But the point here, it seems to me, that the women are proceeding differently, in part because they decided to rise above the status quo, despite their minority numbers.

I doubt that any of these competent women would like to see their actions described as due to the parameters of female sexuality more than male. Irigaray would probably make them shudder. But without having to proclaim that they expressed themselves through a parler-femme—women’s language, not to mention labia—they took action without waiting for the status quo to sink any lower.

If you add to that the winners of the Nobel, Alice Munro, and the Man Booker prize Eleanor Catton—the youngest ever– perhaps some things are changing for the better.

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.

Is self-plagiarism really plagiarism?

I’ve just moved to London for the summer and one of the first things I did was attend the June meeting of “Laydeez do Comics,” a lively, successful group founded by Sarah Lightman and Nicola Streeten a few short years ago. “Laydeez” meets monthly to view and discuss work by graphic artists. As Streeten and Lightman (both graphic artists themselves) explain, “Laydeez” is woman-directed but welcomes the participation of men. I’ve been fascinated by this group since I learned of its (youthful) existence and this week I wrote the monthly blog post for their website (a member writes the post each month).

Is it self-plagiarism for me to re-post myself (below)? Is this different from republishing an essay in one’s own book? From committing the odious academic sin of self-citation (“as I argue elsewhere, see my…..”)? I have to hope it isn’t since the comics meeting will surely be the highlight of my week and the main thing I want to write about today: the strange and powerful ways in which graphic memoir can represent suffering past and present. (I wish I could draw.)

But of course social media offers its own solution. I can instead link to my blog post on the Laydeez site. In that way, I won’t exactly be plagiarizing myself, but rather assuming a rhizomatic identity: spreading out with horizontal roots like a tuberous plant.


What else can I report? This week has been filled with the kind of settling in domestic activities I loathe, and in particular dealing with a vast array of problems—lack of Internet heads the list—that have come with our otherwise quite nice rental apartment. I’ve suffered daily from the syndrome that my friend the late Diane Middlebrook (who spent a lot of time in London) called “Sorry, madam.” In other words, we are not going to fix your problem any time soon. “Sorry, madam” is by definition polite, and by a peculiarly British turn makes you feel rude for even asking.

Back to the domestic. The papers and television news are filled with commentary on the blow inflicted on “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson as she is known here, by her husband, the millionaire art collector Charles Saatchi. There’s a photo of him grabbing her by the throat, appearing to choke her (as she stares at him aghast) in full view of diners at a fashionable London restaurant, in what he described (on his way to the police station) as a “playful tiff”? Is this a story in the States? My cursory check of the Times did not turn it up, but I might have missed it. The Huffington Post did not. A big story here.

Naturally, I don’t mean to suggest a casual slide from starring in domestic agility to being a victim of domestic abuse. Far from it. The statistics here suggest that 25% of women are abused (presumably that’s just the reported cases); I’m sure that American numbers are sadly competitive.

But I have been feeling so maddened by my involuntary immersion in the domestic that I feel brought back in memory to the early days of second-wave feminism.

If this keeps up who knows what kind of abuse I will inflict on whom. “Sorry, sir,” I’ll say, as I try to strangle (metaphorically) the realtor who can’t seem to deliver the Internet service promised, no matter how many times he apologizes.