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.

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.

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.

Memoirs by Men, or why bother?

Of course, not. What editor worth his salt would choose to group reviews of memoirs written by men under that title? No one. But Memoirs by Women, now that makes a lot of sense. Memoirs are by definition by men, so Memoirs by Men would be redundant. Memoirs by women, on the other hand, are, well, memoirs by women. You know, we women have so much in common. And look, the reviewer is a woman! We belong to that group of writers who live, as Meg Wolitzer, showed convincingly, on the “second shelf.”

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review column “Chronicle” groups brief reviews of four Memoirs by Women. What do they have in common? Let’s see: Blue Plate Special (Kate Christensen) is “a paean to cooking and food”; Nine Years Under (Sheri Booker) is the story of a girl’s summer job working in “funeral home in a poor, urban setting”; Mother Daughter Me (Katie Hafner) is the account of a “yearlong experiment in mutigenerational living”; My Animals and Other Family (Clare Balding) is a book about the author’s “deep affection for the creatures…that populated her childhood.” Try as one might, it is difficult to perceive what connects these memoirs except that they have indeed been written by women, and therefore, apparently, deserve no more than one paragraph in an omnibus review. (Compared, say, to the full–if only half page–review of a memoir by a thirteen year-old autistic Japanese boy.)

shirinThe pointlessness of the grouping becomes more striking by contrast with the one book that is not so much reviewed as summarized, but accompanied by a stunning photograph by Shirin Neshat, a well-known Iranian photographer, videographer, and filmmaker.

She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World, edited by Kristen Gresh. This is not a memoir by a woman, rather a collection of essays that accompany the images, images taken by women. To review this collection as by women would have had a certain political sense and interest. But that’s not what happened.

One can only guess at the editorial “reasoning” behind the grouping: here are four books no one will read so let’s give them a break by putting them together under the fabulous photograph taken by an Iranian artist?

But perhaps it’s a mistake to look for the reasons behind the second-shelf treatment women writers contend against. Literary misogyny does not require reasons. All it requires is continuing resistance.

Twitter and Trolls

The FEMEN movement has warned London and Britain that an offensive on the city is in the works. Inna Shevchenko whose face inspired a new image for Marianne, the female symbol of the French Republic as portrayed on French stamps, is proud of her activism, especially if it provokes Right-wing Christian groups to fits of range: “Now all homophobes, extremists, fascists,” she is said to have tweeted, “will have to lick my ass when they want to send a letter.”


I’ve been wondering whether they’ll be coming to New York anytime soon, and if so, will their picture appear in the Times? A girl can dream.

But FEMEN isn’t here yet, and one can only imagine the kind of reaction they will get if the criminal rape fantasizers thriving in the Twittersphere have bare breasts to deal with.

Since I have yet to master Twitter, I’m paying a lot of attention to its effects, and finding it hard to understand why it’s so appealing to so many―for good or for ill. But there’s no missing the ease with which it can become a mode of intimidation. This past weekend, in order to create policy changes on the medium, there was a 24-hour boycott (#twittersilence) over the obscenity, abuse, and rape threats proliferating online, ostensibly triggered by the announcement of the Jane Austen ten-pound bank note, and aimed at Caroline Criado-Perez, the young feminist activist involved in the campaign to keep a woman’s face on the currency. Not all women agreed on silence. Some felt it was better to fight back, but the excesses were a wake-up call.

And it wasn’t all about Jane Austen. Living women writers were equally vulnerable to attack.

Mary Beard

While Criado-Perez was taking cover outside the city―what was thought to be her home had been targeted for potential violence– historian Mary Beard, famous for her popularization of classics scholarship on television (and criticized by some for her appearance―long, gray hair among other sins against feminine beauty) has been threatened not only with rape but with decapitation and bombing. Although some of the feminists here think that Twitter silence is the wrong way to go, better to stand up to bullies and online trolls, the reactions have forced the general manager of Twitter in the UK and the director of trust and safety to promise (weakly) that they will build in better report buttons on various platforms. The police are also on alert.

What connects sex, text, feminism and misogyny? There’s a strange stew of extremist ingredients simmering and ready to boil over the moment anyone turns up the heat on the status quo about women’s place in contemporary politics and culture.

No one seems to have a handle on the sudden proliferation of misogyny conjoined with social media. But I can’t say it makes me want to learn how to have a public face, as it were, on Twitter, any time soon, even if it’s been touted as a way to create attention for my new book.

“New-Wave Feminists,” starring Jane Austen

I’ve long been enamored of new-wave movies since they changed my life, and so it was a treat to see feminists referred to as “new wavers” in a spirit of excitement. A lot has been going on this summer by activists of feminism’s fourth wave. For one thing, due to campaigning by feminist activists, the Bank of England announced that the face of Jane Austen would appear on the next ten-pound note. No small achievement.


And crossing the channel for a moment, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that the Femen leader was to be the face of France’s iconic Marianne: a new postage stamp designed to mark François Hollande’s presidency.

But, back to England, and not just stamps.

I’m not sure how many lions it takes to make a pride, but there’s a pride of feminist journalists reporting in the Guardian and a great deal of attention to feminist issues, from the mass rally in Hyde Park to mark the 100th anniversary of the suffragettes’ action in 1913 to the Jane Austen story, to the battle against the display of what’s called “lads’ mags” in a large grocery chain. (A typical title: “Nuts and Zoo”).

Oddly, or perhaps predictably, the avowedly feminist triumph of getting Jane Austen’s face on the ten-pound note produced an unpleasant, and even violent series of misogynist reactions posted on social media.

Elizabeth Criado-Perez, the brave young activist who led the campaign to have Austen’s face on the note, was attacked and threatened with rape on Twitter. Various conversations about an effective response have ensued guaranteeing that this individual case will not go the way of anecdote. Rather, this specific attack has led to a widespread conversation about the kind of harassmentthat has repeatedly been taking place across the Internet.

Even the distinguished classicist Mary Beard has entered the fray, “naming and shaming” an Internet “troll” who mocked her on Twitter. This feels like the beginning of a serious debate here about what’s been dubbed “anti-social media.

janeaustenI almost forgot. Jane Austen is also making news because of the recent installation of a larger than life Mr. Darcy (a k a Colin Firth) emerging from the Serpentine in a wet shirt as a publicity stunt to promote a new tv channel’s production of yet another film version of Pride and Prejudice. It seems that the lake scene is the scene from the novel (or would that be the movie?) most Austen fans like best.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hadley Freeman’s primer for how “not to be a dick on the internet,” belated advice to Anthony Weiner, pro-actively, how to fight back against internet abuse.

I know I’m given to idealizing places where I do not live, and god knows there’s plenty of sexism and misogyny alive and well in the UK, but I confess it is a restorative experience to read a newspaper column that refers to “fourth-wave” feminism as if it were something real, interesting, and potentially effective.

What will I do when I’m back with the Times?

Can we forgive them? Jews in the news.

Back in New York for a few days, and reading the Times (on paper, of course), I’m reminded how publicly Jewish a city New York is―compared, say, to London or Paris, the only other cities I know well, where Jews and Jewishness do not (except for Israel and Palestine) make news.

In Monday’s paper, Anthony Weiner on the road to public forgiveness was the subject of a longish piece, “Courting Group of Voters With a Strict Moral Code, Weiner Faces a Challenge.” 

The article frames a striking photograph of Weiner, sitting at a long table in profile, wearing a yarmulke, looking like a slightly overgrown, penitent Bar Mitzvah boy, surrounded by at least ten black-hatted, payes-wearing, bearded rabbis solemnly debating his political future. Oy, not only has he exposed his crotch (almost) on the internet, his (betrayed) wife is not Jewish! A difficult case.

To my astonishment, I learn, Weiner is doing well in the polls, but the votes (and moral approval) of the ultra-Orthodox would solidify his lead. A woman, “an Orthodox Jew accompanying her mother to [a senior] center,” summarized the more “forgiving” view: “What he did was harmless. It wasn’t like it was embezzlement. Let’s forgive the guy.” If “we” could forgive Clinton and move on, why punish Anthony Weiner? Especially if he has been helpful in the past to the “community.”

“A Question of Forgiving” is the title of a column in Sunday’s Metropolitan section about Eliot Spitzer and his run for city comptroller (in a self-financed campaign). Spitzer is asking for “forgiveness,” he has said in public, in order to qualify for the position. The column compares his situation with that of Norman Mailer who ran for mayor nine years after pleading guilty to stabbing his wife at a party. In that case, it seems, even feminists (!) forgave him since Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem advised him on the campaign because they believed in his vision for “urban revitalization.” So since they were able to “compartmentalize”―set aside their dislike of his personal behavior, shouldn’t the rest of us be ready to look past Spitzer’s indiscretions and admire his vision of a less powerful Wall Street?

As a Jew, I mainly feel embarrassment that these two quite ridiculous, hubristic Jewish men are the topic of so much serious attention, and might even have a chance to display their arrogant personalities in an official capacity. But beyond that is my feminist memory of how Geraldine Ferraro was treated in her role as the first woman nominated for national office. Ferraro was vilified for the dodgy financial schemes of her husband, and then hounded for her position on abortion because of her Catholic identity. This gutsy woman could not get a break.

The analogy isn’t perfect, I realize, but there is something to it: why do “we” find it so easy to excuse men for their…imperfections, but impossible to forgive a woman (think Hillary and her cookies)?

Anthony Trollope pondered these questions in Can You Forgive Her, one of his arguably feminist novels. Check it out if you want a satisfyingly long summer read.