Wendy Davis vs. “Lean In” – Do Women Need Help to Lead?

Women’s ability and strength to lead, to take charge, and move up the ladder at work has been a much discussed issue since Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, wrote her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Ms. Sandberg’s book laments the dearth of women as visible leaders in the workplace. She wants to inspire women to emerge and become more ambitious in the roles they can play, and to assertively and aggressively reach for new goals while continuing the fight for equality so daringly and visibly begun by the women’s movement in the early 70s.

Among the many responses to Sandberg’s book that I hear in the workplace, are, “Why do women need so much help, so much instruction and support, to move into leadership positions? Leaders just plain lead! No lessons! Maybe they really just plain can’t or don’t want to!”

And then we see Texas State Senator Wendy Davis stand up and deliver a 13-hour filibuster in a hostile environment, killing a bill to close women’s clinics throughout Texas – and doing it singlehandedly! It reminds us that leadership, courage, strength, and a fighting spirit are all there – all part of women’s abilities. (It’s the lioness that hunts and kills and takes care of the cubs while the lion takes a nap…) So why is there still so much difficulty around how women are perceived – and how they feel about themselves – with regard to the issues of leadership and authority?

I’d like to talk about how come women who surely can and have led – judging by all the famous female pioneers and iconoclasts in our history – are still having a such a hard time being seen and recognized in the workplace today.

Let’s start by just looking at the commonly accepted adjectives that define leadership in the workplace: strong, assertive, aggressive, commanding, decisive, powerful, dominant, take-charge. Do these automatically call forth a woman’s “image” in our society?

What adjectives does a woman’s image call up, from time immemorial? Pretty, feminine, charming, well-dressed, soft-spoken, sexy, nurturing, care-taking, supportive, understanding, emotional.

What comes to mind even when you think of the words Masculine and Feminine? Don’t they still bring forth deeply ingrained stereotypes that surely don’t reflect women’s new 21st century accomplishments as leaders or even men’s newly minted, expressive roles as nurturing, care-giving dads?

So let’s take an atavistic look back at where all this came from – a look at the intrinsic qualities we all carry forward from when our species started – in order to see what expectations we always had about each other and ourselves. And please consider how those characteristics that defined us through the centuries still affect us today.

I’ll paint the picture, in simple primary colors, of what roles were carved out for us given our physical makeup. Roles were created based on where we were most needed and suited. Men, who had the larger shoulder girdles and bigger muscles, had to leave the cave and become the providers – the ones who could kill the dangerous game, pull the plows, and build the shelters. So they learned about the outside world and what it took to survive and make things happen.

And women? Being the “birthers,” they needed to stay indoors, to tend to their offspring, to wait and hope with other women that their men would come home to the communal cave. And to learn nothing about the kind of survival the world “out there” demanded, let alone how to take command and “make it happen.” They passively accepted the events that happened and just carried on.

Millennia came and went but the roles stayed essentially the same, because the basic needs didn’t change. Moving into recorded history, it’s little wonder that the visible male roles that implied strength and courage should make men the leaders, as governing bodies began to be formed. After all, the women’s experience was so much smaller and more limited. Even with their strengths and talents, they were essentially invisible, not public.

But, from their earliest cave days, what did women get good at? Relating to others, nurturing, listening, sharing, and working together with other women whose lives were so similar and who shared common problems. Sure, some women always emerged as leaders in the group – keeping peace, solving problems, being courageous or wise or outgoing – but they all learned to find friends they could count on and talk with, who understood them, and would respond when needed.

So we have men in the outside world, who needed to learn to be soloists, to compete for position – skill or power – to visibly continue as heads of families or societies and forge ahead, successfully or not.  And that lasted till the last two generations began to rethink their roles and make up their own rules about what they would and should do.

And women? Over the centuries women’s roles depended on men. Their lives and futures needed a man to select them and bestow upon them the title of legitimate, recognizable woman – qualified as desirable, as wife, mother, caretaker and visible prize. Otherwise they were the leftovers, the maiden aunts, the teachers, librarians, and governesses that had failed in the earlier competition for men to give them their key roles.

And who believed in these predictable assignments, in the implied descriptions of what to expect – even demand – from men and women? We all did!

To this day little boys are asked to “be strong and take it like a man” and little girls are admired for being “so sweet, graceful, and pretty” (and I know there are enlightened parents whose parenting is much broader, but it’s still the general attitude).

So here we are now, with women breaking out of their traditional roles in visible numbers. Little wonder at the reception we’re getting from men – no, not all, of course, but enough to create the general unease that still causes them to turn laws and expectations against us.

What is this unease about? “Well, if women change their roles, what is now demanded of us?” men are asking.

And women are saying, “Move over, we’ll play in your yard too, now.” Unnerved and challenged – since it’s an old habit to keep the roles clear – men still imagine us women as the decorative, softer, more compliant nurturers. But bosses? Ugh. This invasion not only challenges them to move over and adjust but to also rethink their roles. It makes men wonder, “Who will I be now? What role does this create for me? And hmmm… what else might I like to do?”

Now consider how much it challenges women. They still need to fight the ingrained traditions, not only in their quest for some new turf but also against their own feelings, that genetic, physical draw to still be both a traditional nurturer and homemaker.

What about younger women, those who now have so many opportunities carved out by the women’s movement? They still need to learn the how-tos, the skills and techniques for moving into leadership and feeling like they belong there. Let’s not forget that their role models in that exalted leaders’ territory are still relatively few.

It’s not second nature to all women to roar to the front. It depends on personal drive, desire, background, and intention, as well as courage and feeling legitimate as they stride forth. So they need to learn some new approaches to withstanding the hostility and disbelief, to becoming dexterous and comfortable as leaders, and how to create a new space for fulfilling themselves in the world. Women kicking over a millennia of role demarcations is a tough assignment. The stereotypical slots they’re climbing out of cause deep, internal, personal battles to be fought across the board – and in the boardroom.

Can woman do this? Hah! Just look at Wendy Davis, for one. And we can now also do the hard “outside” physical jobs since no strength and big muscles are required to run our newly formed techie world, just brainpower, creativity, and the ability to relate to people as a perceptive executive. And we’ve always been great at that.

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A New Way to Handle Doctors

ImageY’know how we all take our health for granted? All is well and we just bump along when suddenly that all encompassing shift takes place that stops us dead in our tracks when illness strikes.

Well, the whole business of our relationship with doctors was suddenly in sharp focus as I recently became quite ill. No—there will be no organ recital in this blog post. But I do want to tell you about the sudden dependency and anonymity you’re thrown into when trying to navigate the whole medical care process. You don’t have to totally rely on the doctors – the only ones who can tell you what’s strong and how to treat it and get well. Suddenly they’re in charge.

So there I was, with 5 doctors handling my case, dealing with separate systems that had gone nuts. 5 doctors, each of whom saw me only through the filter of his/her specialty. Each called in to focus on the anonymous person with the crimps in her system

And I was being handled anonymously by them through my primary care doctor- they were talking to each other about me in their own private lingo from their special vantage point. I realized that I as a person really didn’t exist for them. They could address my system malfunctions but knew nothing about me and how this conglomeration of illnesses was affecting me- a whole person who was used to moving at top speed through life, quite in charge of my own faculties and choices.

So I thought I needed to emerge – to write a letter of introduction, telling them all whom they were dealing with, hoping for a personal connection and identity, generating a new look at me, not just my problems.

And I did it. I told them why I was writing, with a really a quick bio telling them who I was, what my life was about and why I needed their help to get me back to where I was, in lieu of actually meeting and getting to know them.

I had each letter hand-delivered, with a list of all five doctors and how they could call each other at the end of each letter. And y’know what? It worked like a charm! I got to talk to them with special appointments. One even gave me his cell phone number in the event I got anxious. And once again I felt really know and cared for.

Just a thought about some ways to break through today’s express systems and back to the old one-on-one personhood status. And stay healthy!!

P.S. All is well, mending, healing and a little wiser for wear.

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You Really Can’t Go Home Again

I made a speech in Boston yesterday and am in a state of shock. You see, I lived in the Boston area most of my grown up life. I hosted my own TV talk show there, was cultural reporter on the news, lectured at the Museum of Fine Arts, taught at Harvard graduate schools, bore and raised my three sons there, ate and laughed and played there — I really knew and connected with every part of that city.

But yesterday, driving in from the airport I thought “Wait a Minute! Where am I? What are those skyscrapers? What new highway am I on? What’s happened to my town!”

So I’ve been nursing my wounds — my sense of loss, of estrangement from what was basically “my home town” for so long. How could they do this to my distinctive wonderful city with its visible blend of the old and the new world? Those historic twisted streets of downtown laid out on old Indian trails, those still-standing brick symbols of our heritage, reminders of how our forefathers lived and hoped. All of these affected this New York city girl so deeply when I first moved there. I was in love with joining that legendary America I read about but could never really feel a part of as an apartment-dwelling, hard-driving New York City kid. See, I never fit my childhood books’ descriptions of a front door/ back door/attic/cellar/dog named Spot kind of life. That was really America, I thought, not where I was.

But moving to the Boston area meant I finally joined. Here was Beacon Hill, the old and new State House. Faneuil Hall with its speeches still echoing. Paul Revere’s church tower, the Tea Party harbor, Old Ironsides, Bunker Hill — I was finally a true citizen! How I loved driving into town, seeing the Custom House Tower, remembering that, historically, it was once the tallest building in the city. Every corner was so familiar to me.

But then the “building and improving” started. Sure we need to live in our time and what it can do — but that original Boston/history flavor was still so prevalent when I left that it still sang out–“here’s where it started. Here’s where our great human experiment took form.”

When I moved back to New York, my original home, those images stood fast in my mind. I was still connected to that savory taste of America and the roots I found there.

So what was it really that turned me on so- that made me feel such a part of, so connected to this place?

Symbols. Familiar icons. I guess we get all tied up emotionally in what we see in our daily lives, what we can rely on to be there – recognizable, comforting landmarks that stay stable and dependable and mark the visual corners of our lives. That will always show us the way home.

And what made me react so violently to the new Boston?

When I returned I expected all the old bells to chime for me — ah, there’s where we used to… here’s where that… how I loved the old… But wait a minute!!! What happened?

Overtaken. Boston got overtaken, dominated by what we can do now. See how high, how glistening, how round and square and miraculous we can make these gorgeous new towers? See how we can build new streets, highways, tunnels, create sweeping new landscapes? Everything I saw sang hymns of praise to our technical prowess and how Boston’s face now speaks predominantly of the future.

No, they haven’t torn down the major historic remnants. They’ve just overshadowed them, overwhelmed them — and made them seem little and irrelevant. Little hidden treasures you discover tucked away in the cracks between the new stately, dominant behemoths.

And why did I resent the changes so?

Well, first because it requires me to make adjustments. I had to let go of old familiar memories. To engage in thinking about “where is this? Where do I turn? Is this Stuart Street? Nah, can’t be”.

Then there is the sense of loss. Memories are so connected to places. Going to Theatre Row required eating at the Athens Olympia restaurant every time we went because it was the only real restaurant around there. Seeing the new Stuart/ Tremont Street neighborhood, all glitzy and grown up, meant letting go of pictures of my life — the stuff we all carry around in our memory bank. And in the process, taking a hard look at the march of time — the inexorable movement of life that keeps pushing you on to make room for others. Others coming along who will need to discover their neighborhoods, relate to their city, their version of home. And to create their memory banks.

The new icons and landmarks of Boston today will also change for them someday. And they’ll also feel that disarranged sense of loss as they look at what were their familiar icons and say “Hey! What’s going on? Where are my old buildings and hangouts!?

Lesson learned.

You can’t ever really go home again. No part of the world will stand still and wait for you while you move on in your life. Wait to reassure you about how it was. To help you feel safe and connected to stable earmarks. To let you know that your life was indelible and cast in solid matter.

Nothing told me more starkly about the journey. And what gets erased as you pass by.

What Penn State Tells Us About Us

What’s the main takeaway from the Penn State child abuse horror? For me it’s all about taking a hard look at our accepted priorities — at what’s at the top of our societal list in terms of what matters, what needs to be preserved, what we’re proud of and care about. And how come we’ve ended up with this list.

Maybe it’s time to take that hard look at what slot the powerful domain of football holds, what it really stands for and what’s gotten pushed much further down.

That inviolate Sat/Sun magnet that overrides all other activities and media programming touches one of our most basic instincts. It’s really all about a field of battle and which side we’re on, playing into one of our most ancient, genetic instincts: to go forth on a field of battle with our cave (team) mates to best our enemies and protect ourselves, to fight for our territory, to survive and win. What else could stir more group passion? “De-fense, de-fense” — listen to the power, the unison of the onlookers. We’re all driven by that old need for a group win (be safe and strong), not a group loss (danger, weakness). We get deeply involved in the vicarious fight for territory — that old warring spirit, the good guys vs. the bad guys, the conquest, the defeat.

Tapping into such atavistic needs and feelings, the football practitioners — teams, coaches, colleges, media, money-makers — have an easy time gathering the force to carve out a high place on our list of passions and priorities — and create an unbelievably lucrative kingdom.

But we’re born with a whole bunch of instincts, all left over from the early days when we, as a species, were just trying to get a toehold on the earth and figure out what we needed to do to survive. The two overriding forces were:

  • not getting killed (battling for safety) and
  • procreating the species (protecting the offspring).

Well, that battle for territorial safety has surely changed and football merely re-enacts that ancient drama. But protecting our children? That’s real — as strong and firm an instinct as it ever was.

The passion for protecting the offspring is rule one throughout the animal kingdom — not just lioness and cubs but us, too. And since our offspring take much longer to develop and leave the nest, our instinct should be greater and last much longer.

How did football grow to such a station in our lives that Penn State’s officials and practitioners would go against such basic human nature just to protect the franchise?

To save the reputation and grooved machinery of the their football kingdom, we see grown men who train and develop, actually mold young athletes, whose powerful involvement in their lives also teaches them morals, values, standards and ways of playing life’s games. We see these men find no deeper calling than just saving the status quo — and the power and money it represents.

What was that assistant coach thinking when he came in and saw a grown man (allegedly) assaulting and sexually violating a child? What did he feel? Wasn’t he horrified? Didn’t he identify with the victim, not the perp? Wasn’t his first instinct to run forward and stop it? Isn’t that genetic? But the perp was a Penn State football coach! What would it do to the kingdom if he confronted and fought him, let alone tell on him? What overrode that first human instinct and made him leave and just call Daddy?

“Fight a coach? I could lose my job! I’d threaten JoePa’s football kingdom, ruin my future — and Penn State’s golden franchise!”

Result? Execs, coaches, those who could have put a stop to it laid low. Did the minimum. Passed it on sotto voce to the next in line, whispering in corners, no action taken. And let Sandusky continue his destruction of young boys’ lives. No sense of responsibility to anything above the good of that franchise. No higher priority.

And when the media finally moved in, (telling us about Syracuse and The Citadel, too) we got our noses rubbed in what has been raised to such a high position on our priority list. Not only that the law wasn’t followed but that a deep human instinct didn’t register with any of those people to want to prevent Sandusky from hurting any more children.

 So — let’s take another look at our priority list — and at where kids fit on it. What other kids’ needs are we missing besides safety and protection from fiendish adults? What priorities are we giving to education? To their health? To helping them grow into useful adults who will direct the future of our society? What other roles do adults need to play in their lives?

And maybe we’ll even start thinking — “Football? Great. But it’s still only a game.”

Finding My Body Again

            Summer. Lenox, Massachusetts becomes home. And I’m surrounded by the glories of both the natural and the man-made world.

Nature? Trees, vistas, mountains, a lake outside my windows. Air so clear and fresh you actually notice what you’re breathing.  Silence at night. Stars so visible, so close. And a chance to see the sky without bending backwards.

Man-made? A host of theatres taking us with them on journeys of joy, of thoughtfulness and insight. Dance concerts bringing us the well-trained bodies of artists from around the world to show us what else we can say to each other. Tanglewood with the  Boston Symphony Orchestra  playing its heart out to adoring fans eating delicious picnics on the grass and reveling in the work of old masters and the new prophets.

But something else, too. A chance to stop the usual madness and focus inward. To not only listen to thoughts but to dare to try to recapture a passion. What was one of my strongest passions: I was a dancer.

Well, the years have rolled by, the weight has rolled on, the old muscle structure but a memory now. The skiing, the tennis, the dance, the physicality and speed with which I moved so naturally yesterday—all gone. New forms of my life took over. New focus, new skills developed  But wait. Up here I dared to open that door again.

I hied myself down to the local community center and started taking aerobics and Zumba classes. What an experience! Zumba is non-stop dancing for an hour to Latino salsa, mambo, meringue plus middle eastern and Indian pop music—all of it making me dance my heart out— all in time with a very fast beat and tunes blaring. No holds barred. And there’s no instruction. Just follow the leader. Copy. Figure it out as you go along. Recognize the steps and the patterns and just keep going! Fumbling the steps? Who cares. Just keep up with the music and move!

The first moments were shocking to me. I used to be a very good dancer. I could isolate parts of my body, think and move on several levels and also make my movement have meaning, both to me and to the audience. And here I was discovering, and needing to relate to, what felt like a lump of clay-like body. Sure I could keep time with the music, I HAD to keep time with the music—that’s one on my most basic instincts.  But to begin to move the sections of my body, to discover what I couldn’t automatically do, what wasn’t responding—all in an environment of a dance studio that was once my life!  What a kaleidoscope of images and feelings flashed through me!  But on I went, without the judging, the berating, the mourning over what I’d lost.

And there was this amazing new set of muscles dancing with me— my smile! I found myself grinning from ear to ear by the second day, when the body began using itself in the old ways. Improvising a little, putting my own style into the steps, recognizing and being able to repeat and enjoy what I’ d done yesterday.

Oh, my friends—what a glorious experience. I thought I’d lost her forever. I hadn’t seen or touched or heard from that Sonya in so long. And I found her again. She never left! And she was so glad to come out of the cramped little box in which I’d tucked her away.

Well- we’re back together again. Dancing every day among a group of people who aren’t every good at it, but, undaunted, they do it. They move and they enjoy it! And my old dancer, the old pro, is right in there with them.  Non-judgmentally- just moving . Having fun. Loving the chance to move again. And smiling.

When Insults Were Eloquent – Revel in the Juicy Language


     Have you thought about what’s happened to how we use language now? How we put messages and ideas we mean to get across? Since speed and ease are the big drivers in today’s communication,  I thought I’d take you on a visit to how something as tough as insults were creatively put by writers and speakers in days gone by.  Read these and enjoy the masterful way language was used.  Do they tempt you to re-think how you write those emails? 

A little levity helps put criticism in perspective, even though it’s sometimes hard to take.  I think you’ll enjoy these………I know I did.

He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.
………………………………………….Winston Churchill

A modest little person, with much to be modest about.

…………………………………………Winston Churchill

I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great
…………………………………………Clarence Darrow

He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the
…………………………………………William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

Does he really think big emotions come from big words?
…………………………………………Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time
reading it.
…………………………………………Moses Hadas

He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.
………………………………………..Abraham Lincoln

I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.
………………………………………. Groucho Marx

I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved
of it.
………………………………………..Mark Twain

He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.
………………………………………..Oscar Wilde

I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a
friend, if you have one.
………………………………………..George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second if there is one.
……………………………………….Winston Churchill, in response to Bernard Shaw

He is a self-made man and worships his creator.
……………………………………….John Bright

I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it¹s nothing trivial.
……………………………………….Irvin S. Cobb

He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others.
……………………………………….Samuel Johnson

He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.
………………………………………..Paul Keating

He had delusions of adequacy.
………………………………………..Walter Kerr

There’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure

…………………………………………Jack E. Leonard

He has the attention span of a lightning bolt.
…………………………………………Robert Redford

They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human
………………………………………..Thomas Brackett Reed

He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by
diligent hard work, he overcame them.
…………………………………………James Reston (about Richard Nixon)
In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily.
………………………………………..Charles, Count Talleyrand

He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.
………………………………………..Forrest Tucker

Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?
………………………………………..Mark Twain

His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.
……………………………………….. Mae West

Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.
………………………………………..Oscar Wilde

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts for support rather
than illumination.
………………………………………..Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

He has Van Gogh¹s ear for music.
………………………………………..Billy Wilder

How Easily We Forget

Well, the International Women’s Day was recently celebrated  amid  some press and fanfare and I sat there remembering the first ever Women’s Day declared in the U.S. in the 70’s — what the world was like then for women, how we felt and what’s come out of those fervent days..

There I was, in Boston, being the first woman to host her own talk show without the help of a male host, tackling the tough subjects of the day, and there were many —the women’s movement, the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate, the new consciousness-raising movements for both men and women. The Sonya Hamlin Show presented the first-ever birth of a child with natural childbirth on TV. We tackled the issues of homosexuality with gay men and women who dared, for the first time, to come forth and speak their names. We dealt with the school desegregation of Boston – a very bitter struggle – by my hosting members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizen’s Council to show Boston whom they were really dealing with. I interviewed all the leaders of the new young women’s movement, promoted their books, even launched every aspect of Ms magazine for a week on our air before it ever came out for the public on newsstands. And my station, WBZ, supported us and didn’t lay a hand on our programming. Truly groundbreaking broadcasting.

And then came the announcement of the first ever U.S. Women’s Day.

It meant “Stand Up and Be Counted”.  March down the streets of downtown, link arms, sing Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman, Hear me Roar”. It meant being open  and visible to each other as a group — not just as individual letter-writers to the editor or phone campaigns or passing petitions around.  What a feeling!

Our personal passions were suddenly multiplied and shared with so many others – we were live and visible. It was a little intimidating but so exhilarating. And so new… But then, as we marched, I saw and heard a bunch of hard-hat workers hanging out of an unfinished building, cracking the usual cracks, whistling  the usual whistles, telling us to go home and get in the kitchen, in the bed etc. and I was reminded again of the uphill climb before us.

What’s sad to me today is that the newest generation of women have no idea what that fight was like. They never think about how come they now have so many opportunities that didn’t exist for us, the first wave of women trying to enter the big world as equal participants. They have no idea how it felt to be the first women into the various jobs that seems commonplace. We needed to fight so hard to even get heard or taken seriously, to even be allowed to apply for and enter the new possibilities we were making happen. I remember having experts on my show talking about new work modes to accommodate women, like flex-time and shared jobs and the four- day work week –all now quite commonplace. We were ridiculed, especially by the established workplace.

So as I read about plans for the newest International Women’s Day I reflected on how social change happens—how hard it is, how exposed the early proponents are—and how quickly that painful struggle gets absorbed into the mainstream and never even thought of—the changes simply becoming part of what’s expected.

Wouldn’t really knowing the history of the women’s movement strengthen today’s young women? Not just to surprise them but also to deepen their understanding of what issues they still face and inspire them that it’s possible to make social change. And to discover the joy of finding each other and join again in pursuing common goals.