Monday, November 24, 2014

Hollywood's Silent Messages about Women

One of the most popular films for kids right now is Planes: Fire and Rescue from Disney. My grandson received several toys associated with the film for his birthday and they were really neat toys. I thought it was a cool concept, so I rented the film to watch with two of the other grands.

I was horrified. The first half of the movie features a single female character, the mechanic. OK, not bad, except that she can't fix Dusty's (the main character) engine. Too bad.

Dusty goes off to a national park to join wild fire fighters. He can live with his problem. We meet the only other female character in the movie, a cute little plane called Dipper, who has a role to play in fighting fires, but not a very big role. Her main function is to look cute and get all googly over Dusty.

After a few ups and downs, Dusty learns to fight fires. But to really succeed in an emergency, he has to take the engine out of its safe zone into the "red" zone. He saves the day but crashes. Not to worry, the mechanic at the park refashions the necessary part for the plane (because he is obviously much smarter than the little hometown mechanic), allowing Dusty to return to his real passion as a racer.

In a completely different genre is the movie Interstellar. It's doing well in the box office, and it is a good sci-fi movie. In this movie, we get two strong female characters: the main character's (Coop) daughter Murph and a female scientist/astronaut, Dr. Brand. In the end Murph saves the day and the human race. Anne Hathaway, Dr. Brand, gets a billing with Matthew McConaughey. But make no mistake, this is McConaughey's movie. There are long tedious minutes watching Coop wrestling or not wrestling with his space ship, wandering on a weird planet with the bad guy, or floating around in the fifth dimension. We get glimpses of Murph over the years, but she mostly gets to stare at the bookcases in her room, until Dad contacts her from the fifth dimension and gives her the final clue to saving civilization. Dr. Brand gets to accompany Coop on his critical mission to establish contact with scientists on the far side of a worm hole; but when it comes time to decide which mission to pursue, Coop shoots her and her plan down saying her decision is based solely on a love

It is so easy to imaginethis film featuring Murph and Dr. Brand as the leading characters, with Coop along for the ride to fly the ship.  But no, this is Hollywood 21st century, still putting women in supporting roles and sending out messages that girls can't fix things and make good "arm candy" to ooh and aah the hero.

By contrast, we have started rewatching the Star Trek series, Voyager. Captain Janeway and B'Allana Torres don't stand around waiting for any male to do their thinking. They frequently out think the guys and beat them to the punch, but Janeway also has a shrewd sense of leadership and doesn't miss much. The men in Voyager carry their own weight, but they never outshine the women.

In 1993, Hollywood could get it right. What has happened since then? Where are the women?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

At the Loss of a Wilson Sister

Most of you have followed me this past year as I have been working to reverse the decision to make Wilson College, an historical women's college in Chambersburg, PA, into a ho-hum co-ed school in a mecca of first-class co-ed institutions. Some of you have been sympathetic to the cause, others just roll their eyes and ask why or say "oh that's Beth."

I did not graduate from Wilson, but my closest friend Sharon was my roommate at Wilson and we have traveled many roads together. In the 1980s after the college was almost closed, I became active with activities on campus and was elected to the alumnae board. It was while I was on the board that I came into my own as a strong adult woman, and I became a full member of the Wilson Community accepted as an equal.

As my life took a couple of twists and turns (divorce, remarriage, cancer, major surgery), my connection with Wilson became more typical of an alumna--reunions and annual giving. I fell away from the Baltimore Wilson Club where I had many friends.

Last fall when the first rumors of financial crisis and major changes started floating around about Wilson, I reengaged. In this new world of social media, I became part of a whole new community of Wilson Sisters. I can’t count the number of women who are my friends, although only a few of us have met in person.

Via FaceBook, we have learned about each other, learned to care about each other, pray for each other, commiserate with each other, laugh, tell stories, and work together for our Wilson. And occasionally, we are called to mourn with each other.

Today is a day of mourning. A young woman from the class of 2000--Andrew's age--died very suddenly yesterday. Jen and I have been FB friends for almost a year; I got to meet her and her husband last year at reunion at Wilson. It was a brief encounter in the college bookstore when Erin introduced me. It took me a moment to realize that this was that "Jen", but I was thrilled to meet her.

We each have our own memories of Jen. I think the luckiest women are those who have known her since her Wilson days. But I know I too am blessed by knowing her.

Last spring, Jen surprised us all by getting a unique Wilson tattoo. Talk about gutsy and loyal.

I am deeply sorrowed by Jen's death; there is a huge hole in the universe where this young woman once walked, played, and loved. (There is also a huge lump in the bottom of my stomach.)

I originally joined FB because my kids were on FB. I never imagined that "social media" could be a catalyst in forming new, deep friendships. But today as I mourn Jen, I am so grateful to be blessed with such a wide family of friends and sisters brought together by FB.

Jen Moyer-Damian, I miss you.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

I didn't notice...

Let me begin with a story.
In 1979, I went to  Ankara, Turkey, with my husband, who was on a business trip. I was the only wife on the trip.

While the men were at their seminar, I explored the city--mostly walking, but occasionally taking a cab. I was intimidated by the unfamiliar culture, so I didn't venture into  the market or a mosque. I did find the old citadel of the city and wandered the ancient streets. I also found the Roman baths, which I had to myself. I was motioned off the far wall of Ataturk's tomb by a rifle-carrying soldier while I was trying to get a picture of the city. And I  negotiated the purchase of Turkish rug for a friend at home.

Our first night in Ankara, we were wined and dined by a NATO general and his wife at the Officer's Club. There were three women at the table that evening: the general's wife, a young American translator, and me. It was a multicourse meal with all the accompanying silver and crystal served by young soldiers in crisp, white uniforms. I was seated next to the general. And I was terrified. This was the stuff of Upstairs/Downstairs, not dinner at the Wardlaws and definitely not dinner at the Ashbys. But the general and his wife were kind, and I don't think I embarrassed myself or our country.

The next evening, the Turkish soldier who had been assigned to the visiting scientists took us out for an authentic Turkish meal. The restaurant was full, and the owner asked us to wait at a small tea shop nearby. Sure enough when they were ready for us, a boy came and tapped on the window of the shop and escorted us back to the restaurant.

It was a huge place, filled with men eating, drinking, and smoking. As we were led down the length of the room, up some stairs, and across the upstairs room to our table, I  became acutely aware that there were no women in the entire place. None! I was in shock. Was I violating some deep-seated cultural tradition? Should I be in this place? Where were the women!

With each step, I grew more and more self-conscious and intimidated. By the time we were seated at our table, I was in a panic. I gasped to my neighbor, a gentle English scientist, "There are no women in here." He looked around and said very casually, "I didn't notice."

This story has been a metaphor for me for the past 34 years.

After the hard-fought battles for women's equality and for our place at the table, I naively thought that we had made sufficient progress that women had earned their place and were welcome at the table. We aren't there in great numbers, but we do have seats on the Supreme Court and other courts; there is a record number of women in Congress [still not very many, but more]; we have had two female secretaries of state, as well as other Cabinet members; and there are more women in management positions in business.

But no, we aren't even close to sufficient progress. Women are still being offered crumbs from the Head Table; we are token members of the leadership club of American society. And in most countries of the world, women are still struggling to make it into the dining room.

The board of trustees at my alma mater, Wilson College, a women's college in south central Pennsylvania, decided two weeks ago to make the college co-ed. The school is in serious financial trouble, and guess what, Men are the answer to all those woes. Women's education is no longer necessary in this country; only 2% of high school girls are interested in a women's college; and without men, the college will fail.

In 1979, the same year of my trip to Turkey, the board of  trustees voted to close the college. The alumnae of the college said "No," took the board to court, won the decision to keep the school open, and raised more than $1 million to allow the school to open in September. In the subsequent years, the alumnae did everything for the college: they mowed grass and weeded flower beds; they taught classes; they raised money;  they recruited new students, and much, much more. The alumnae, aka Wild Wilson Women, raised our alma mater from the ashes.

This time there don't seem to be any legal issues that can be used against the board, but many of the alumnae are not ready to give up on the college as a women's college. We are passionate about the value of a women's college. This story is not done.

The pain of the crisis at Wilson is almost unbearable. But as I look around me in January 2013, I am discouraged. I just attended the Mere Anglicanism conference in Charleston, SC, and my heart is weighed down by all the white men dressed in black, wearing dog collars, by a Eucharist led only by men facing East [that means the congregation gets to see their rear ends], by a program led only by men and attended overwhelmingly by white men.

The program this year was excellent; all five speakers were top-notch scholars teaching good solid Christian theology. But where are the women? There were maybe two or three female priests, in cognito.

Women were not invited to and are not welcome at this table, which should represent our Lord's table.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Letter to Chair of the Board of Trustees

I understand that you are looking to Wheaton College as a model for the co-ed Wilson. Rather than look to the women's colleges that have gone co-ed, please look at the women's colleges that are succeeding.
Hollins is exemplary []. Their motto is "Women who are going places start at Hollins." Look at their Web page entitled, "Why Hollins?"
Why does Wilson College have to fade into the oblivion of a ho-hum coed school nestled between Gettysburg, Dickinson, and Shippensburg and under the shadow of Penn State? Pennsylvania has lots of small co-ed schools.
Wilson is and always has been unique. Use the moneys aimed at going co-ed to make her even better for the 21st century.
Put the money necessary to provide male dorms and athletic facilities into our facilities for the Women with Children program, for our athletes including the gymnasts, and for the new programs needed to make her even more attractive to the women of the 21st century.
Please note that I have donated $1100 to Wilson in the past two months, and I am working with two high schools students to get them to Wilson. And I am just one alumna who is willing to put my money and my time into the women's college that gave me so much.
Sincerely your,
Beth Ashby Mitchell '69