Illustration: Jenny Williams

Women We Read This Week

Daisy Hernández’s “Latina at the white, male New York Times” in Salon

The title of this piece suggests a screed, but what unfolds is a narrative more sad than outraged, more comparable to the slow and baffling dissolution of a marriage than to a righteous battle with institutionalized injustice. In fact, Hernández draws on the former metaphor in this phenomenal passage, one of those that sucks the breath out of you with the understated directness of its truth:

The bravest phrase a woman can say is “I don’t know.” That’s my answer when my mother asks what I am going to do with my life if I am leaving the New York Times. I don’t know.

She gives me a blank face, and some of my friends give me sympathetic looks the way you do when someone is about to file for divorce and you really liked both people in the marriage and you feel sad and wonder what it says about life that two good people couldn’t make it work. I don’t know.

The piece is an excerpt from a memoir, and has a memoir’s steadily paced accumulation of thematic weight, with scene after scene snowballing towards the inevitable end of Hernández’s departure. Some scenes are wrenching with the weight of repression, and twisting beneath it a burgeoning political consciousness:

Now the elevator door creaks open and Buddha’s mother steps into the narrow hallway. She’s pushing a shopping cart. It has two six packs of beer. She refuses, however, to talk to us as she opens the door to her apartment. She’s a heavy black woman with colorless eyes and deep lines set in her face, and my first thought is that no one is going to tell her story, the story of how she probably falls asleep at night in front of the television set with a can of beer still open, like my father, and how she raised a family here so many hundreds of feet above the Bronx, and how she bathed Buddha when he was an infant and fed him WIC baby formula and now all she wants to do is smack him.

Hernández’s writing has a journalist’s sparsity and Didion’s particular, diffuse sadness, and beneath the story of an emergent awareness of racial politics is one woman’s quest to figure out what she wants and believes in, and where she belongs. I can’t wait to read the book. –Sarah

Jill Lepore’s “The Last Amazon” in The New Yorker

With the comic book character’s film debut on the horizon, Jill Lepore unravels the unexpected, and totally fascinating, origins of Wonder Woman. I won’t give too much away, but it involves the tangled personal relationships between a group of unorthodox academics and early birth-control proponents, and the ebb and flow of the feminist movement. Here’s Lepore:

Wonder Woman’s début appeared in December, 1941, in All-Star Comics No. 8. On the eve of the Second World War, she flew her invisible plane to the United States to fight for peace, justice, and women’s rights. To hide her identity, she disguised herself as a secretary named Diana Prince and took a job working for U.S. Military Intelligence. Her gods are female, and so are her curses. “Great Hera!” she cries. “Suffering Sappho!” she swears. Her “undermeaning,” Marston explained, concerned “a great movement now under way—the growth in power of women.” Drawn by an artist named Harry G. Peter, who, in the nineteen-tens, had drawn suffrage cartoons, she looked like a pinup girl. She’s Eleanor Roosevelt; she’s Betty Grable. Mostly, she’s Margaret Sanger.

In the spring of 1942, Gaines included a one-page questionnaire in All-Star Comics. “Should WONDER WOMAN be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?” Of the first eighteen hundred and one questionnaires returned, twelve hundred and sixty-five boys and three hundred and thirty-three girls said yes; a hundred and ninety-seven boys, and just six girls, said no. Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society. She was the only woman. Gardner Fox, who wrote the Justice Society stories, made her the society’s secretary. In the summer of 1942, when all the male superheroes head off to war, Wonder Woman stays behind to answer the mail. “Good luck boys,” she calls out to them. “I wish I could be going with you!” Marston was furious.


MariNaomi’s “Writing People of Color”  in Midnight Breakfast

The Gap’s new ad campaign, plastered in subway stations here in New York City, is called Dress Normal. The ad I had to walk under to get to work today featured Elisabeth Moss in a sweater coat and black pumps on a beach; there aren’t any footprints behind her in the sand.

The other people who will be helping us to discover our normal this fall are, like Moss, white, at least according to The Gap’s press release, which explains that its campaign is a “rallying cry” to be “confident in how we are by dressing how we are most comfortable.” At the office, I joined my newest colleague, a Nigerian refugee who made the mistake of coming out as gay and HIV positive in his own country and nearly lost his life for it. He comes to work every day crisp and pressed. Button-down shirts, knife-edge pleats in his pants and, on some days, the flash and panache of a gleaming white blazer. Living in Uganda, I learned that “comfortable” dressing in loose, jersey tops and skirts is something that only white professional women do. If a Ugandan woman attempts this, a Ugandan colleague or friend will step in and tell her to step it up. Not because people won’t respect her, but because a pressed shirt, a coordinated shoe is a sign of respect to the other people around her.

MariNaomi’s piece in the recently-launched Midnight Breakfast—which serves up espresso shots of bold writing behind lovely tiled artwork for each piece—is an antidote to the world where Dress Normal means like white people in their sweaters on the beach. Sometimes “how to’s” can be a send up of the fact that people even need instruction. Fair enough. But this piece is exactly what it claims to be—a guide to writing people of color via musings and cartoons from the author and a range of her friends. As one contributor notes, “Creating only white characters to avoid writing about race is writing about race.”

The Chinese artist Elisha Lim offers up a compelling panel on Black queer culture along with this directive:

[H]ere’s my advice: base your character, closely or loosely, on a real person. Consult with them as you write it. Let them edit it. Credit them generously. Repay them, at the very least with a copy of the book. If you can’t do this because you don’t have any friends of the particular background, then you probably don’t have the life experience to write that character convincingly. (Also a good moment to seriously reconsider your friend selection process.)

A drawing or a “character sketch” on the page can be a caricature or a quick flash of the truth. These are postcards from a colorful, honest, self-examining edge.

Here is the thing—even in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world—many of us move in monochromatic spheres. Or we move out of them wearing our privilege so lightly we don’t even know it’s there. When I slide into my seat beside my Nigerian coworker, I am wearing denim that’s giving way to a hole at the seam, a rayon t-shirt that I hope I ironed well enough this morning. There really aren’t any footprints in the sand.

Sarah Smarsh’s “Freedom Mandate” in Guernica

As schools around the country settle into a late fall rhythm, five states are now juggling the requirements of the controversial Celebrate Freedom Week, a mandate requiring that all students from kindergarten through eighth grade receive education on the U.S.’s founding documents. Sarah Smarsh’s intensely researched investigative piece looks at the implications of the legislation on the structure of the Kansas public school curriculum and pre-existing state requirements, as well as the potential underlying religious ambitions:

Enter Celebrate Freedom Week, by which state representatives effectively tell teachers what to do. Touted as a means for addressing America’s infamous civic ignorance, the Kansas incarnation of the law calls for lessons “concerning the original intent, meaning and importance” of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution “in their historical contexts.” In particular, the bill’s authors state, “The religious references in the writings of the founding fathers shall not be censored when presented as part of such instruction.”

As an elementary student, I remember the cartoon videos, mini-constitution printouts, and other civics education components of my public education, and later on the state tests and their often frustrating requirements. More importantly, though, I remember my teachers: the good and the bad, the tough graders and favorites.

And ultimately, Smarsh reminds us of them. Despite the reach of policy makers and the tangled bureaucracy behind public curricula, teachers, and the way they choose to integrate legislation, are the true power holders in public schools.

Out-of-touch policy-makers may tinker on behalf of special interests, with consequences echoing throughout budgets and curricula. But if the ultimate goal for schools is student learning, the person who wields the most influence is the one standing at the front of the classroom. Anyone who loved astronomy in the sixth grade, when the science teacher poked constellations into a flashlight-lit bed sheet, but lost interest the following year, when the teacher read about planets from a creased textbook and then napped at his desk, knows this. Teachers are the most powerful people in public education.


Sarah Gray, Joanna Rothkopf, Lindsay Abrams, Katie McDonough, Prachi Gupta & Jenny Kunter’s “Women respond to sexist category on “Jeopardy!”: This is what we really want” in Salon

I’m into funny ladies, really digging them in all ways, especially on Twitter. “I’m not looking for love, just ripe avocados” (thanks, Grace Reynolds @gracehasfriends). This is just what feminism needs, more funny ladies, more on TV, more on stage, more writing books. I loved this group post by the women of Salon about a recent episode of Jeopardy where the category was “What Women Want” and all the answers involved sexist stereotypes. The writers took the question seriously and came up with some damn fine answers about what women want.

Joannna Rothkopf – “I second and third and fourth male birth control.”
Sarah Gray – “Good, safe, stigma free, CONSENSUAL sex for all who want to have it.”
Prachi Gupta – “A Viagra-like drug for women.”
Jenny Kutner – “More female [insert professional role here] Legos.”

I would like to add a few of my own: I fifth male birth control, I want men to focus more on the female orgasm, and I’d love to find some ripe avocados.



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