Hidden Figures

What a great title for a missing part of American history. This is the untold story of the vital contributions of African American women to American aviation and the NASA space program. Untold because historically women have been diminished or ignored, moreso women of color. In other words, this is a story of inequality based on race and gender.

Hidden FiguresStill playing in movie theaters after opening last December, the feature film based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly has struck a resounding chord in our culture. It captures the American can-do spirit with female protagonistsintelligent, strong women of color who don’t take “No” for an answer. I can’t think of another movie in recent years with female main characters working in a math and science environment.

I was mesmerized watching Taraji P. Henson in the role of Katherine Johnson writing math equations and solutions on a blackboard with supreme confidence. She was simply demonstrating what she knew, but also informing the room full of men that a black woman has just as much intelligence as they have. And maybe more.

The film has adapted a small section of the larger story of these women who worked as human computers verifying the computations of white male engineers. This was during the time of segregation so they worked as a separate unit from white men and women. Some of these hidden figures later advanced to work as peers with the men. The encouragement of their forward-thinking, enlightened parents permitted these girls to study and enjoy math. Most ended up as teachers; some heard about better-paying jobs in the federal government aviation program in Hampton, Virginia, which later became NASA.

After seeing the movie and reading the book, I experienced feelings of immense triumph for these women and women in general.  A sense of sadness followed. I was thinking about many other girls and women who don’t have opportunities for education and therefore can’t discover their talents, skills, and passion. This is a loss for individuals, yes, but also for our society and country. The women in Hidden Figures made significant contributions to their families, communities, and our country. How many people’s ambitions and potential are thwarted because of racism, sexism, and other biases?

Imagine if each American child has the same opportunities for education regardless of class, race, and gender. 

Imagine if they have the freedom to explore their talents, to challenge their minds without fear of failure and shame.

Imagine if each female is unhindered by sexual harassment or assault or any kind of sexism that would make her doubt herself.

Our current rape culture on campuses, in our armed services, in our families is destroying lives and compromising human potential. Many women don’t report these crimes because the system does not provide fairness, support, or justice to most victims. Few perpetrators are punished. In fact, victims are often blamed and punished for being raped.

The April issue of The Atlantic Magazine features an article that reveals how qualified women are still facing gender bias in the workplace, specifically in computer science. “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” reminds us how slowly attitudes are changing. As we’re encouraging girls to enter STEM programs to provide skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and math, thus providing higher-paying jobs for women, the work environments in these fields sound all too similar to what Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson faced in the 1940s and 1950s.

The old boys club is alive and well, with all its ploys to keep women “in their place.” Women    in male-dominated fields today, like technology, are finding a hostile work environment where they are being blocked in getting promotions and creative opportunities. The article describes a survey of women in technology: “84%…had been told they were too aggressive; 66% had felt excluded from key networking opportunities because of their gender; 90% had witnessed sexist behavior at conferences and company off-site meetings….” And so it goes.

Gender bias still exists and is detrimental to individuals, society, and our country. It pulls everyone down, wounds and weakens our democracy. It’s true that there have been moments of success and triumph when a woman has stepped forward out of the shadows and been recognized for her talent, courage, or contribution. But many of these stories are still hidden. I wonder what would have happened to John Glenn’s space flight if Katherine Johnson had not provided the accurate computations for his return to earth. She did and he became an American hero. Only now decades later, she is receiving the recognition she so rightfully deserves.

America, We Need To Talk

Something has been bothering me for many years. Now that it’s become a topic in our national elections, it’s out in the open, and we need to talk about it: violence against females in America, aka our rape culture.

We’ve all heard the statistics, right? I mean is anyone really surprised? Most women are not surprised because this is our reality. Chances are you are one of these women. If not, you certainly know women who have suffered some form of sexual assault, whether verbal, psychological, or physical. I’m not talking about other anonymous women. I’m talking about your sister, spouse, daughter, cousin, aunt, or mother—someone you love. Your teacher, boss, neighbor, or co-worker—someone you see often if not daily.

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A certain Donald has never been challenged, never sued, prosecuted, or punched for the way he treats women. He has gotten away with being a misogynist and feels entitled to do whatever he wants where women are concerned.

Until now. Women are stepping forward to challenge his denial of what he said on videotape. He claims it was just guys talking and that he never behaved in the manner he bragged about. Women are saying: Wrong! He’s guilty of sexually assaulting me! He walked into our dressing room knowing full well that some of us would be naked or partially clothed.

This is the core character of someone who would be president. These are deep-seated values. Hard-wired. He and his buddy Roger Ailes, the deposed head of Fox News, apparently have no impulse control, no sense of propriety and decency, and absolutely no respect for women. Zero.

Their behavior speaks volumes. I have to wonder: Why do they hate women so much?

This is the central question regarding this epidemic of violence against females, both women and girls.

Unfortunately, they’re not alone. I hate to admit that I’ve dated men like this. They’re everywhere in society. They appear charming, but the big bad wolf is still there. They may not have the wealth and power of these guys, but their misogyny is just as toxic. Because of men like this, we have new language to describe them: toxic masculinity. Here is just one article on this subject. Google this term for more.

Talk is cheap. Action or inaction says it all.

That swimmer at Stanford who got caught raping an unconscious woman. That judge who reduced his sentence to a mere slap on the hand. Another judge in Montana in an incest trial who sentenced the criminal father to a meaningless 60 days in jail. The 12-year-old child was repeatedly raped by him. Those hundreds (thousands?) of rape kits in police departments across the country that are never processed. Those college administrators who choose to not fully investigate sexual assault incidents to avoid scandal. And these are only very recent examples.

There’s my friend who got grabbed when she was in her 20s and was working as a cocktail waitress; she got grabbed in the way that certain D (I can’t bear to even say his name) described he could do. She made a scene. The well-dressed customer denied it and she got fired. Decades later she has blogged about it. 

Women’s well-being is consistently being marginalized, declared unimportant by those holding power. That man’s behavior during the debates was especially revealing: We knew about his pathological lying, but his constant scowling, his use of intimidation (stalking and name-calling), and general lack of respect were astonishing. I can’t imagine how many thousands of women were triggered by such behavior on national television and by what was revealed on those videotapes. I can’t imagine how many women are remaining silent after being sexually assaulted by this man because they fear repercussions. Because you and I know he has done this numerous times. He gets away with it and he keeps doing it.

This kind of male privilege contributes to our rape culture. And rumors of rape have indeed surfaced in connection with this toxic man.

It’s not easy for those women who are speaking out. This is a topic I’ve written about from my own experience. It wasn’t easy to recall those events. It wasn’t easy to write about them. But it was something I had to do. I used to feel ashamed, but writing about these events made me realize this shame doesn’t belong in my body. Women are constantly being made to feel shame when they’ve done nothing wrong. Shame is being used as a weapon to keep us females in our place. It’s about power.

Like rape. Like sexual assault. It’s about exerting power over others.

When that man chants and encourages his followers (both men and women) to chant, “Lock her up,” I cringe. An involuntary physical reaction. They’re not talking about me. They’re not even really talking about Hillary. They’re talking about all women! They want to silence all women. To keep women powerless. Unequal.

They should be ashamed of themselves.

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Kudos to those stepping forward to tell their truth, speaking truth to power. Bullying and intimidation aren’t stopping them. More than ever, women need to tell their stories. Women need to use their voices. Women, we need to ROAR to stop this violence! And we need all decent men to stand and support us. Because this is not a gender war.

Violence against females hurts EVERYONE.

 

Performance!

I am a writer, not a performer. However, I have done public readings, which is a form of performance when done well. Recently, I read with eleven other Seattle writers in a program called “Listen To Your Mother” (LYTM). Feeling the energy in the room from the audience and from each other, we were all transformed. We had rehearsed before the event, but everyone stepped up and gave more of themselves during the program, a performance anthology of stories about mothers and motherhood.

It was magical! See for yourself. Here’s the link to my performance. You can also watch the other fabulous writers; I still laugh and cry when I see/hear them.

 

After this performance, I began thinking about what happens during a live performance. What makes live performances so exciting? When I go to a theater or concert hall, why do I feel a little nervous, this low hum of electricity in my body that makes me breathless?

From a performer’s perspective, I want to do my best. I want to convey my story, let the words flow through my body in an expressive way that the audience can relate to. I had practiced how to use my voice for emphasis, dramatic pauses, and to include a variety of intonations. I had practiced using my body to communicate a shift in the story, to look and connect with the audience.

On the day of the performance, we lined up to get ready to go on stage. We all felt some combination of excitement and butterflies. We got the signal and began walking to our chairs. When the audience started clapping during our entry, I teared up. I thought, “They want to be here! They want to hear us!!”

We sat on the stage and gave our attention to each writer as she took the podium. We all loved each other’s stories and had quickly bonded during our few meetings. We gave each other our attention, love, and support, and we could also feel this from the audience, mostly family and friends of the writers. But they were sending positive energy to everyone, not just the one writer they knew.

When I took the podium, I was still teary from the initial welcoming and the wave of support I felt from the audience.

It’s not easy to take the stage. When artists, whether musicians, singers, dancers, actors, or writers, perform live, we are communicating our art to connect with an audience. We strive for perfection, but mistakes can happen. But so can brilliance. Anything can happen when art is being created. In the moment. Right here.

Honestly, I am more comfortable being in the audience rather than on the stage. I find it magical to watch another human making art, to let the words or the music wash over me, to feel the rhythms and sounds, to experience the story come alive with the staging, lights, sets, and costumes all working together with the performers—the various elements coming together and coalescing into something whole and unique and hitting all my sensory receptors. Even in a public setting, this experience can feel intimate, like sharing a secret.

Any time people are performing, the audience becomes an integral part of that performance. The audience is not passive. There’s social interaction with those who accompany you and perhaps with other audience members. The fact is, when someone chooses to leave the comfort of their homes to be present in a particular location, they are making a decision to interact. With other people and with the performers. It’s an unconscious contract. It’s an energy exchange, this flow from the stage to the seats in the auditorium, concert hall, or even the park; whether it’s laughing or crying, holding our breath, feeling shock, applauding or booing, the performers can feel the audience and its moods, and they respond accordingly. The audience offers both silent collaboration and dynamic, spontaneous responses.

I am so, so grateful for having had such a wonderful, supportive audience at the LTYM event. Their energy contributed to our success. They were moved. We were too. Dare I say, together we were brilliant!

Hitting the Refresh Button for May

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One of the big events for May is Mother’s Day. This year I was thrilled to be selected one of twelve writers for the Seattle production of “Listen To Your Mother.” We presented personal stories about our mothers or being a mother. The words originated in each writer’s heart and rang true for an appreciative crowd at Town Hall on Sat., May 7.

LTYM programs were presented in 41 cities in North America this year. That’s nearly 500 stories! Many thanks to Seattle coordinators Jill Ginsberg and Jennifer Scharf for making this amazing event happen!

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The fabulous women of “Listen To Your Mother” 2016.

I want to acknowledge the range of emotions that Mother’s Day generates for people. Not all mothers are loving. Not all mothers will inspire their children to think about them with gratitude, about buying cards and gifts, flowers and candy. People are complex, and it’s not unusual for love/hate relationships to develop between parents and children. Or it could even be worse. Like other people, mothers are capable of extreme cruelty, awful decisions, even life-threatening ones, and harmful, irrational behavior that can traumatize their children. For the children of such mothers, Mother’s Day might conjure up anything but celebration. Survival might be a more appropriate word.

Still, Mother’s Day is only one category of women.  Motherhood is a huge commitment and an enormous job. No question. Even though I have no children, I’ve observed my friends who are mothers, sometimes up close and personal. The challenges are many. This is a job that’s never done. This is a job that’s not for everyone. And many women are choosing to be childless.

Not only is Mother’s Day only for mothers and grandmothers, it is only one day out of  the year when we think about honoring women and the importance of their role in society.

Generally speaking, women should be respected and honored every day. Instead, what I’m seeing is evidence of misogyny at all levels. This concerns me. For example, on May 24, 2016, The Seattle Times featured three disturbing stories about women.

One featured Bill Cosby. Eleven years after a woman reported that Cosby sexually assaulted her, the case if finally headed to trial in Pennsylvania. For years we have been hearing about dozens of women coming forward with their allegations about Cosby’s misconduct: drugging and raping them.

Why has it taken the authorities so long? Are these women’s stories discounted because of Cosby’s celebrity status or simply because of male privilege?

The second story described the “Highway of Tears” in British Columbia where up to 50 indigenous women have disappeared or become unsolved homicides. These crimes are happening in all parts of Canada, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada estimates the number of disappearances and homicides could be closer to 4,000 instead of the official count of 1,200 cases.

If these were white women, there would be a public outcry. If these were men disappearing, resources would have been found to solve these crimes for a manhunt to  find and prosecute the perpetrators.

The third story reported about the working conditions for women employed on Wall Street. Twenty years ago, 23 women working at Smith Barney filed a class-action suit against their employer for sexual harassment and unequal pay. If you saw the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, you have a good idea about the outrageous behavior and sexism that this male-dominated culture encouraged. Almost 2,000 women eventually joined the case.

Even though Smith Barney paid out $150 million in settlements and awards, women still are frustrated today about disparities in income and promotions. In other words, conditions have not changed much. In addition, women’s hands are being tied in bringing legal action because they are required to sign away these legal rights if they want a job on Wall Street. Instead, they have to submit to mandatory arbitration.

Violence against women takes so many forms: economic, physical, emotional, cultural, medical, even judicial. It’s happening with such frequency everywhere.

In our rape culture, the latest outrage was the rape of an unconscious young woman behind a frat house at Stanford University in January 2015. Good people actually caught the rapist and he was charged. There was no question of Brock Turner’s guilt. He committed a violent crime. The prosecutor expected a sentence of six years for three felony counts. But he was a white male athlete attending a prestigious university, and the judge sentenced him to six months in prison and three months probation. Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County thought this was fair. Instead, he was violating the victim once again.

White male privilege? You bet! The old boys’ network is alive and well, and violence against women will continue because apparently there are no consequences.  When will women’s lives matter in our society??

Mother’s Day. Women, let’s not be lulled into accepting this one day out of 365 when the reality is persistent and pernicious misogyny.

 

Tutoring Is Learning

I love to travel to international destinations and experience different cultures. I learn so much about the world (and myself) when I travel. But tutoring English and writing brings the world to me. The students at Seattle’s community colleges come from all over the world and they offer me a peek into their cultures that expands my worldview.

For example, I worked with a woman from Korea who was writing an essay about technology and how it has changed our lives. She described being a child at the end of the Korean War when schools were functioning again. Her school supplies included one pencil that had to last all year and paper that was brown and lumpy. I suggested she use this story to introduce her essay and offer this contrast of her meager supplies to the wealth of options, including various computer devices, that students now have at their fingertips.

Last week, I learned a new word “Chindo” from a student’s essay. This refers to someone Chinese born and raised in Indonesia. Unfortunately, there are cultural tensions between Chindos and native Indonesians.

Istanbul mosqueOne day I sat down with a student wearing a burqa. I had worked with students wearing a hijab, a head scarf covering the hair, neck, and shoulders, but leaving the individual woman’s face still visible. A burqa is a different matter. It hides a woman’s face with only a narrow opening for her eyes–just wide enough for her to see and navigate through the world. I could see her eyes, eyelids, and perhaps a bit of her eyebrows. Black-robed and black-veiled, a woman in a burqa is conspicuous on American streets, in American public spaces.

As a tutor, I hesitated for a few seconds as this was my first encounter with someone dressed like this. It was a conversation session to help her practice English. She had a pleasant voice, but I felt initially disoriented; I was talking to someone whose face I couldn’t see. It was strange to sit and talk with someone without seeing her mouth. (I wondered how she ate.) As an information gatherer, I automatically look for visual clues that can help me understand another person. In this case, they were not available. I couldn’t see any body language, facial expressions, jewelry, hairstyle, clothing, tattoos, and so on.

As I wrote this, I thought this was the first time I had talked to a woman completely covered up like this, but then I remembered the nuns who ran some private schools in Honolulu. Their faces were not covered, but certainly their heads and bodies were. And yet, I did not perceive them as being unusual or ominous.

The student told me she was married and studying English in order to attend graduate school in the U.S. I guessed she was twenty-something. I looked at her pretty soft brown eyes and noticed her frameless glasses. I learned she was from Saudi Arabia and had an infant daughter. She struggled with expressing herself in English, but was respectful, intelligent, and determined to improve her English. After my brief culture shock, the tutoring session proceeded as usual.

Later, I realized a deeper discomfort. Her attire made her repression visible to me. The woman herself was rendered invisible—a person with no visual identity, no shape to indicate her body or limbs, no suggestion of natural curves or personality. This reminded me of my own personal history and the larger cultural history of women—how we have been made invisible, how secular and religious laws and customs have disadvantaged and suppressed women. I felt the heat of anger in my body. No woman should be constrained and limited.

However, I also felt curious. I went online to research the hijab and burqa. I learned there are variations in different parts of the world, and there’s a specific name for the scarf that covers a woman’s face: niqab. Also, both Muslim men and women are supposed to dress modestly. However, modesty is strictly imposed on women: women should cover their heads and bodies in public; they must not bring attention to themselves and risk tempting men. The responsibility for temptation falls entirely on women because apparently men have no self-control. While the burqa erases a woman, women who wear the hijab can at least choose scarves that are colorful and printed in various designs, and I suppose she can wear a different scarf every day if she chooses.

Most women enjoy fussing with their hair, experimenting with various styles and colors, and going to the salon. It’s a form of self-expression. Therefore, it’s difficult for me, a woman fortunate to have choices about hair-styling, to imagine having to cover up my tresses every day.

Clothing is another means of self-expression. To be denied this freedom is unthinkable to those of us who have grown up with fashion magazines. We take for granted that when we are in public, we will see a variety of people dressed in all manners of styles that we find attractive or not, making judgements accordingly. So, when we see women constrained and restricted in their attire in public, it’s shocking. On the other hand, more modesty in clothing would not be a bad thing in American culture although there’s certainly a difference between modesty by choice and patriarchal control. I realize that in the privacy of their homes, these women don’t remain hidden. Burqas and hijabs are only worn when they leave their homes and go into public spaces.

I wonder what Muslim women required to wear hijabs and burqas think of the clothing choices we American women wear in public. I wonder what they see.

Enlightenment

the miracle of birth
the creation of a child
a new human spirit
soft bundle of flesh
sweet, innocent,
vulnerable
we see Life anew and
Awe shines forth

The story of Christmas. There would be no story without the infant. There would be no child without the mother and her labor.

A holy time when music and lights lift us up. Inspired by the Tangible and Intangible. a time of transcendence from the ordinary. The spiritual and material worlds merge. A time of wonder and awe.

It’s more than a Christian holy day. It’s a time for all people to reflect on motherhood. All infants and children, not just the Baby Jesus. The miracle of life. My mother. Your mother. Women’s bodies. My body. My love for babies, a maternal instinct and a desire to touch, be near the miracle of new life. To hug a child and be reminded of my own innocence and beauty: this is how we all started in life.

Women’s bodies–it is science, yes, but also mystery. Mystical. The popular novel, The Davinci Code, made me rethink the stories of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. These two women are often portrayed as opposites: the virgin and the whore. And yet, as women, they were both vessels for the miracle of life, and according to the novel, the true meaning of the Holy Grail of Arthurian legends and stories of the Crusades. The novel claims that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were lovers, and that she bore his child. Don’t know about that, but both Marys represent all women’s bodies as holy vessels for new life to be honored and protected.

Truly, women hold the key to human potential, to the survival of our species. Degrade us and you degrade life.

I wish I had understood this earlier as a young woman: how to treat my body as something sacred, to be cherished.

I wish all men had this understanding and would stop abusing women and children. Stop their violence against the vulnerable and the beauty in the world. I know I am asking for a real miracle. But we all have to dare to ask to stop sexual violence.

I’m asking college administrators to stop covering up sexual assaults on their campuses. And to stop making the well-being of athletes more important than that of our daughters and sisters.

I’m asking the NFL to man-up and adopt a zero tolerance attitude against players who abuse their spouses and girlfriends. I’m asking all sports teams to stop pushing alcohol during sporting events. Do fans really need chemicals in their systems to enjoy these events, to feel more manly?

I’m asking our military leaders to deal with their gender bias and put real action behind their words to transform the military regarding sexual assaults. To provide a safe and respectful working environment for women in the military. To prosecute and stop protecting perpetrators.

I’m asking all college administrators to muster the courage to address the problem of excessive alcohol consumption on campuses and campus events. Alcohol may not be the only link to sexual assaults, but it is a huge factor. I’m not the only one who thinks this, right? Parents of college students should support policies to control this substance on campus, as well as be vigilant to any behavior in their children that signals alcohol and drug abuse or misogyny.

Real men don’t beat up women. They don’t rape. They don’t abuse children. They aren’t bullies. They don’t stand quiet when violence is perpetrated against women or children. They know when they need help and can ask for it.

They are able to recognize the truth. They are willing to change. And they have the courage take action to make things right.

In this Season of Light, I am reminded that the days following the Winter Solstice will start getting longer, that Hanukkah is the Festival of Light, and the Star of Bethlehem is an important symbol in these dark days. Yes, we need more light. Sun, moon, stars, candles, colored lights on trees and houses. Incandescence. Illumination. Inspiration. Imagination.

Yes, imagine miracles. Then we can make them happen.