Delusions of Gender

I kind of forgot to have kids. When my body told me with finality that I was never going to be a mom, I was surprised by a rush of regret.  Coincidentally, I read Louanne Brizendine’s book, The Female Brain.*  It was a relief to be told that the tumult in my mind wasn’t my intellectual self or even my emotional self.  It was my hormonal self.

Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist on the faculty of  the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, tracks the waves of hormones that we produce — from birth through childhood, teen years, adulthood, into aging — and the behavior patterns that result.  Females, she writes, have always needed to be highly tuned to the feelings and actions of others.  Carrying and raising a baby was dangerous in early social groups.  A woman had to insure that she and her children were safe.  Her hormones hard-wired her to prioritize relationships over wants.

An Australian feminist I met while teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government took me to task for being seduced by Brizendine’s theories.  She gave me a new book to read, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, by cognitive neuroscientist Cordelia Fine.** Fine sets out to debunk Brizendine’s work, which she calls “neurosexism.”

Fine is pushing back against the idea that our brains are hard-wired for male or female behaviors. Her premise is that our culture permeates our minds to create behavior, and that behavior then becomes part of the social context. She doesn’t deny that there are sex differences in the brain. She points out, though, that the popular use of neuroscience to explain gender inequality simply reinforces old-fashioned beliefs about the position of men and women in society.

She begins with a litany of quotes: “Women are incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover,” Nicholas Malebranche, 17th century French philosopher; “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy; the male brain is predominantly wired for understanding and building systems,” Simon Baron-Cohen, 21st century Cambridge University psychologist.  Not very different from the statement of former Harvard president Lawrence Summers that women can’t succeed in math careers because they are biologically less capable than men.

She describes a set of “stereotype threat” experiments. When women subjects were presented with subtle information that they weren’t as good at math as men, they performed more poorly than men on math tests.  When the subjects were told the opposite, they exceeded male performance. “Having seen what effect on career interests a simple, brief manipulation in the lab can have, one can’t help wonder at the cumulative influence of…life,” she writes.

Fine takes on the Catch-22 that women in leadership roles endure.  She notes that Hilary Clinton was described in 2006 as “too angry to be elected president.”  This handcuffed her, as Maureen Down wrote in the New York Times:  “If she doesn’t speak out strongly, she’s timid and girlie. If she does, she’s a witch and a shrew.”  Sending out resumes for stereotypically male jobs, experimenters found that male candidates were preferred no matter what their qualifications.  The female candidates were considered less qualified for the job, even if on paper they were identical.  If a candidate was perceived to be a mother, the discrimination was even stronger.

A large portion of her book examines various experiments which “proved” that male brains are spatial and systems oriented, while female brains are geared toward feelings.  One by one, she reveals how flaws in the research were caused by subconscious bias.  She posits that neuroscientists are “unwittingly projecting assumptions about gender onto the vast unknown that is the brain.”

The most intriguing section was about how children acquire their beliefs about gender roles.  Even in the womb, a fetus receives gendered information: a mother speaks to her unborn daughter with a softer tone of voice and gentler vocabulary than to a son. Infants see people around them performing gendered activities.  Toddlers are assaulted with advertising that is highly gendered creating the “pink princess” phenomenon.  Even children’s literature, which should have a higher standard, favors boys’ adventures over girls’, mothers who are at home wearing an apron, and fathers who bring home the bacon.

Fine ends with a chapter on the plasticity of the brain.  Biology does not beget behavior; it’s the other way around.  She writes, “The circuits of the brain are a product of your physical, social and cultural environment, as well as your behavior and thoughts.  What we experience and do creates neural activity that can alter the brain.”  And not just the brain: our genes and hormones are affected, too.  What we do then touches others’ actions and attitudes. The cycle is reinforced — and pretty soon we are said to be hard-wired.

What I’m thinking is this: we are in the midst of a tumultuous turning point in society’s beliefs about women’s capabilities, desires, and roles. We aren’t hard-wired to be from Venus while men are from Mars. “Time’s Up” isn’t just about calling out sexual harassment, it’s about claiming our equality.  Women’s marches all over the country aren’t just about protesting our current administration.  They are about saying, “We are powerful, too!”  And the new push for women to storm the male political bastion isn’t just so we can affect legislation.  It’s to say that women are, and always have been, exceptionally capable of running the show.

* Brizendine, Louanne, THE FEMALE BRAIN (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 2006).


Sky Above Clouds IV

If I had to pick a favorite painting, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV would be it.  Most if us know O’Keeffe from her flowers, cow skulls, or austere landscapes.  Any one of her paintings would top my list, but this one is magnificent.


When O’Keeffe began to fly in the 1950s, she started a series of works responding to what she saw from the air.  The Sky Above Clouds series started with a small, relatively realistic version of puffy white clouds.  She gradually abstracted the images on larger and larger canvases, culminating in this one.  Here’s what she wrote:

“I painted a painting eight feet high and twenty-four feet wide—it kept me working every minute from six a.m. till eight or nine at night as I had to be finished before it was cold—I worked in the garage and it had no heat—Such a size is of course ridiculous but I had it in my head as something I wanted to do for a couple of years so I finally got at it and had a fine time—and there it is—Not my best and not my worst.”

Sky Above Clouds IV fills an enormous wall at the top of a grand staircase in The Art Institute of Chicago. It slowly comes into view as you climb the stairs. The only painting in sight, its expanse and simplicity will take your breath away.

O’Keeffe was seventy-seven years old when she made this painting.  As she aged, she clearly wasn’t afraid to explore new motifs, to expand in size, and to push towards even more abstraction. As an artist of a “certain age” myself, this inspires me.  Her age also tells me something about the images of clouds and the title of the painting. O’Keeffe is not looking down but looking up.  The clouds themselves are merely a basis from which to move to the next level of existence, whatever you may imagine that to be.

As another year has passed, I can feel changes in my own perspective.  I am losing interest in many things that had been a part of me.  I don’t cook extravagantly. I wear the same clothes over and over again, particularly when I paint.  Smaller pleasures are more meaningful:  a glass of wine with my husband, playing ball with the dog, enjoying an early morning walk outside. The need to be with people all the time, playing with language, has been replaced by the joy of being alone in the studio, interacting with paint, brush, canvas.

Physical change as well as perspective change is taking place.  I have had to make peace with a different way of staying fit.  No more extreme sports.  It’s nice, actually, to smooth out the rough edges of needing to be on the mountain or on the river.  I am letting go of the addiction, which it was, to physical risk.

The risks now are in my artwork.  After decades of painting, I may be finding a new visual voice.  I’m getting comfortable breaking rules and having the courage to say, “This is me.  This is how I want to paint.”  I’m letting the “errors” be the strength of my expression. My nascent new standard:  “Do I want to look at this?” Not, “Is it correct?”

O’Keeffe painted her last unassisted work when she was eighty-five.  Even when she was almost blind from macular degeneration, she continued to create with the help of assistants.  At ninety, she said, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.”

Onward.  We will all face the physical and mental shifts of aging.  Right now, I’m choosing to experience them as blessings.  The world may get a little more circumscribed, but the will to make art can explode within that smaller circle.

It Can’t Happen Here

Last May, a white supremacist shouted racially charged hate speech at two young Muslim women on public transit in Portland, OR.  Three men came to the women’s defense. The perpetrator pulled out a knife, killed two of the men, and severely wounded the third.  The following weekend, a huge white supremacist rally was held in Portland. It erupted in violence as the police were seen provoking the rally protesters while protecting the “alt-right” gathering.

How could this happen in one of the most liberal cities in the country?  In one of the most left-leaning states? There is legal pot-shop in every neighborhood.  People have the right to die here.  Oregon is a sanctuary state and a leader in renewable energy.  Our governor is a bisexual woman.  There is even an annual Portland naked bike race.

Pull back the curtain and you’ll find a different story.  Oregon’s congressional District 2 is the seventh largest congressional district in the country.  It voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.  Congressman Greg Walden from that district spearheaded the disastrous “Repeal and Replace” health care debacle.  He continues to unabashedly push for the removal of environmental, health, and communications protections.

Yes, Oregon is primarily rural, which could be one explanation.  The bigger question is this: why is Portland called ‘the whitest city in America’?  The number of black people in Oregon hovers at 2% of the population.  Why?  Why do I see Confederate flags still flying as I cycle on the back roads of this beautiful state?

History tells the story.  In 1844, before it was even acquired by the U.S. as a territory, the Oregon legislative committee enacted what were called “the flogging laws.”  Any free black person living in Oregon would be publicly flogged every six months.  In 1845, this law was modified:  any free black person still in the area was to be offered up for “hire” to anyone who would remove them.

Oregon became a state in 1859, just prior to the Civil War.  Before the state constitution was ratified, two items were put to a public referendum.  Seventy-five per cent of voters agreed that there would be no slavery in the new state.

However, eighty-nine per cent approved the provision that anyone who was black, or of any mixed ancestry, was forbidden to live, work, own property, or accept any kind of contract in Oregon.  This measure also included punishment for anyone who brought a black person into the state, hired a black person, or even let a black person stay with them. This legalized racism, which was in the Oregon state constitution until 1925, had a strong appeal for a certain kind of white settler.

Technically, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited this exclusion. It says, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Oregon ratified this amendment in 1866, but rescinded that ratification in 1868.  It wasn’t until 1973 that activists forced a reconsideration of this decision. Oregon officially joined the rest of the country on this principle only forty-four years ago.

The Ku Klux Klan arrived in Oregon in the early 1920s. By 1923, the Oregon Klan was 35,000 members strong in sixty local chapters. The governor of the state, the mayor of Portland, and chief of police were all associated with the Klan. It was reported that the Portland police department was full of Klan members. State, county and local officials were Klansmen.  Many fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant ministers in Oregon joined or supported the Klan at its height.

Although the Klan faded from Oregon life after the 1930s, its shadow remained.  Until the early 1960s, restaurants in Portland wouldn’t serve black people, the city’s swimming pools were closed to blacks, and black people were only allowed on the local skating rink on a certain day. The Aryan Nations founder, Richard Butler, identified the whole Pacific Northwest as the ideal place to establish a white separatist utopia because it was already in place.

What to do with this information?  I’m not sure.  We must face the hypocrisy of our nation.  We live in a country which was founded on slavery.  We now claim to be the land of the free, yet every state in the union, no matter how seemingly liberal,  has a history of racism, exclusion or genocide. The Ku Klux Klan is now resurgent, as is white supremacy and white nationalism in all its forms.

We can rally, we can rant, we can try to talk to our neighbors.  We must elect people who uphold the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.  We must support organizations that fight racism.  And, every day, we must speak out when we see racism in action.  Doing this cost the lives of two heroes in Portland in May.  I hope it doesn’t cost other lives.  But it is absolutely necessary to move our country out of its history.

Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised

Things are moving fast.  However this new regime has come into power, through Russian intervention, dark money, gerrymandering, voter suppression or sheer chicanery, it has revealed the underbelly of America. I had thought we lived in an advancing society, where the ills that have plagued this nation since its inception were gradually being addressed by law or convention or a real change in values.  But the veils have been torn back.

I started a research quest about our national history.  What I’ve learned has clarified for me why we shouldn’t be surprised by the tenor of politics today.  Maybe this is what our country really is, and those of us who thought otherwise have been both mistaken and naive.

What follows is a bare bones tracking of some of the heinous beliefs that are leading our country today.  As you read, think about recent legislation, who the perpetrators are, and the direction that our country seems to be moving.

John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, gave a sermon in 1630 naming the settlement of the New World to be “the shining city on a hill.”  His words called for a virtuous community that would set an example to Old World. In reality, this community excluded anyone who practiced a religion other than Puritanical Christianity or had a different color skin.

In fact, Roger Williams, a Massachusetts minister, wrote a pamphlet stating that freedom of religion was a natural right which required church and state to be separated. This way of thinking, in addition to his demand that the Native Americans be paid for the land that had been taken from them, got him convicted of sedition and heresy.  (He escaped and founded the settlement of Providence, Rhode Island, whose original charter insured both religious freedom and separation of church and state.)

The shining city concept mutated into the notion of American Exceptionalism with the Declaration of Independence. The well-heeled white landowners who wished to be free of a financial obligation to Great Britain believed that America’s new institution was a very special creation. But it didn’t stop there:  America must now remake the world in its image. Thomas Paine wrote:

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at  hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.”

But that freedom was limited to one segment of the population. When the Constitution was created in 1787, our founding fathers, many of whom were slave owners, created and condoned the “three fifths compromise.” Each African-American held in slavery was to be counted as three/fifths of a person. This shocking concept gave the southern states more seats in Congress than if slaves, who weren’t allowed to vote, had been left out. It also affected the electoral college by favoring states states whose white male voting population was small, mainly those that practiced slavery. The result was that for thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the presidency, slave owners from Virginia helmed the country, and slaveholder interests dominated the government until 1861.

Thomas Jefferson, one of those Virginian slave owning presidents, doubled the size of the country with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. He also funded the Lewis & Clark expeditions, and and, shortly afterward, the whole continent became fair game. American Exceptionalism metastasized into America’s Manifest Destiny, a belief that God gave the United States the duty to “redeem the heathen and remake the west in the image of the original colonies.” In 1811 John Quincy Adams wrote:

 “The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of  religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs.”

The War of 1812 was, in part, about this principle.  The U.S. had long wanted to annex Canada for several reasons:  to completely expel the British from North American, to stop raids by indigenous peoples into the Northwest Territories, and to gain additional land.  The war ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent. The British had hoped to set up an Indian state in the territories below the Great Lakes, but the American diplomats rejected this idea:

“The United States, while intending never to acquire lands from the Indians otherwise  than peaceably…are fully determined…to reclaim from the state of nature, and to bring into cultivation, every portion of the territory contained within their acknowledged boundaries.”  

This statement shocked the British negotiators, one of whom remarked, “Till I came here, I had no idea of the fixed determination which there is in the heart of every American to extirpate the Indians and appropriate their territory.”

Skip forward a few decades, and Manifest Destiny becomes one of the root causes of the Civil War.  White settlers in Mexico had fought to claim the territory known as Texas. They beat Santa Ana in 1836 and created the Republic of Texas. The Republic was annexed by the United States in 1845. The new state claimed that its southern boundary was the Rio Grande; the Mexican government said that it was the Neuces River further to the north.

So what else to do but to invade Mexico. The war lasted from 1845 to 1848, ending when the U.S. forces captured Mexico City.  The negotiations for peace included a payment of fifteen million dollars to Mexico and the acquisition of even more territory. In fact, the United States considered annexing the whole of Mexico to insure peace in the region.  But this was controversial — it would mean extending U.S. citizenship to millions of Mexicans. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina spoke these words:

“We have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race….”

With all these new lands poised for possible statehood, the big question arose:  which new states will be allowed to practice slavery?  The Southern states were eager to impose their belief system on the rest of the country, insuring slave holding states the majority in Washington. So the big political question became one of “states’ rights”, not one of the moral depravity of holding a human being as a slave. Of course, what followed was the formation of the Confederacy and the Civil War, not a war against slavery, but a war to keep the states united.

I could continue forward for decades.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Japanese internment camps during WWII.  The refusal of twelve states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.  The gutting of the Voting Rights Act.  Citizens United.

It’s true, there have been some remarkable people and enlightened moments in our history.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting battles and his establishment of the National Park System.  All the women who fought for the right to vote.  FDR’s insistence on the safety nets of Social Security and Medicare.  The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  Roe v. Wade.

Sadly, though, the political views established at the very outset of our great experiment are still in play.  The Civil War continues to be fought today, and the ghosts of the white slave owners have returned.  Our first black president was vilified and thwarted at every turn, not because of any political disagreement, but because he was black.  Our Native American population is again being deprived of their ancestral lands. The Supreme Court is in danger of returning to the kinds of decisions it made when it ruled in the Dred Scott case. The education system is shifting from an attempt at egalitarian opportunity for all to one rigged for the rich; the economic system is returning to the age of the robber barons.

Ironically, it may be that the concept of states’ rights that will save some of us.  Governor Jerry Brown of California has teamed with the western states to fight climate change.  Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown has named Oregon a sanctuary state.  The state of Washington denied a lease for a coal export terminal.  Thirty-seven states (and the District of Columbia) have legalized same sex marriage.  Eight states have legalized marijuana.  State governments are going after the gerrymandering that has legitimized an unfair voting system.  State courts in Washington and Hawaii are fighting against the illegal and unconstitutional “travel ban.”

Is this going to lead to another Civil War?  Will the economic strength of the “blue states” prevail just as it did in 1865?  What frightens me most, though, is living in a nation whose values seem to be so perverse.  Through hard work and dogged pressure we may be able to change who the politicians in charge are. But will we able to change the deeply held beliefs that dominate the worst political discourse these days?  How do we go about doing that?

The Government We Deserve — by Al Brown

Our democracy is dying.  There are too many of us to engage in a face to face debate that elevates rather than stupefies.

At the March on Washington in 1968 I walked, not marched, down Pennsylvania Avenue arm-in-arm with my fellow citizens under the watchful eyes of the FBI snipers atop the government buildings.  I felt like the million people there were fired up for the spectacle — the guerilla theater troupes, the flags, the costumes, the drugs — not the underlying reason.  Maybe it’s the same for those attending a Trump rally.  But looking back on the march it was the thirty thousand mothers of dead sons and the thirty thousand more waiting in the wings that knew that the spectacle didn’t matter.  It was the heartbreaking subtext in the script that the stage lights should have been trained on.

So now we’ve got The Trumpster, a perfect foil for our distaste in our political tastebuds.  He’s a master at committing to an untruth that the great unwashed accepts as a fact that must be embraced and defended.  “Make America Great Again”  is the baloney in a baloney sandwich.  “Make America White Again,” a code phrase,  is what’s being said, but we already knew that. Could such a notion really exist in our collective American heart?  Can we accept that half of us don’t share our progressive world leading attitude?

The “others” that didn’t vote the way we expected are just angry at Washington, but who isn’t.  Everybody knows that Washington is a monumental cesspool of ego.  So we blindly  selected a seasoned political hack, who’s also a woman with four years as Secretary of State.  Let us not worry.  She’ll surely win the day and we can go on thinking that what we think of ourselves is all that matters. Perhaps Trump is just a very savvy business man who knows his customers will believe anything and buy everything.  Couple that with his opponent — an exhausted non-political politician gasping for one last round of attention even if that attention was the kind we give the nice grandmother next door who secretly annoys us.

And the war continued for another five years.

The tv network’s campaign reporting, as usual, was dreadful. Their so called “balanced and fair” coverage laughable.  Every time I checked on CNN there was the Trump word hitched with some earth shaking blather of his that required wall-to-wall, gavel-to-gavel trivia spoken by overpaid, over dressed head nodding mannequins.

Are we citizens or viewers?  Is it apathy or stupidity or plain old head-in-the-sand comfort that leads us to accept the avarice, chicanery and arrogance of the political insiders.  They, the bureaucrats that proclaimed that they never were, never could be, are all burning the midnight oil of influence peddling.  “But Trump isn’t a politician,” cried his supporters.  “He’ll free us from the colored liars who shoot cops and give money to the Arabs and the poor alike.”

Could racism be alive and well in America?  Studying it with words wrapped up in doctoral theses ain’t gonna git it done.  Maybe being different is always going to be different or maybe curiosity about those differences voiced loudly will lead to some kind of understanding about the us that’s in them.

I don’t know.

The Trumpster is about to stuff the various agencies and departments with white guy billionaires.  Do we  hope that their long lunches get longer, the wine glasses bigger, and the afternoon naps deeper?  Or do we trade in our apathy for the messy, confusing art of self-government?  Do we stop emulating the rationalizations of the people who work for the tobacco companies?    Do we continue to suspect that the government, whoever they are, secretly wants to take away our guns?  Do we accept that we are all grown-up living on a planet that is revolving in space and that planet can easily sicken and die?  Do we realize that nuclear war can happen?

Or do we demand of ourselves a future of artful expression, opportunity, self-discipline and love?

I don’t know…

And is my “I don’t know” a code phrase for I don’t want to think about it?


A playwright, actor and director, A.W. (Al) Brown is best know for Back to Back, which premiered at the Empty Space in Seattle, was produced in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Salt Lake City, and London, and received a NEWSDAY nomination for Best New Play of 1982, as well as Los Angeles DramaLogue and Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards. He has twice been invited to the Sundance Institute and has received commissions from the Mark Taper Forum and the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville. Residencies include the Seattle Repertory Theatre, CenterStage in Baltimore, Denver Center Theatre, and the Cricket Theatre in Minneapolis.  While in the Twin Cities, Al received a McKnight Advancement Grant as well as winning the Dudley Riggs Comedy Theatre’s Sketch Writing Competition.  Al was also chosen for the 1997/98 National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group Playwright Residency Award of $25,000 for a new work which was developed at the Salt Lake Acting Company.  He’s written three yet to be published novels, and has spent his thirty years with me making me laugh out loud every day.

Keep the Heat On

During my seventeen years of teaching in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Executive Education Programs, I learned a great deal about Adaptive Leadership from Professors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky.* I’ve written about strategies for leading change using their model several times over the life of this blog. I’d like to focus here on two ideas: the difference between authority and leadership and the necessity of keeping the heat high enough to make a difference. As you read, I’d like you to be thinking about the crises looming for our country.

First, the distinction between wielding authority and exercising leadership. The one who is in authority has been given a mandate to provide protection, direction and order. For example, the leader of a primate group, a silverback gorilla perhaps, knows from experience that it’s essential to climb trees to save the females, infants and juveniles from a cheetah on the hunt. He (she, if in a different primate group) knows how to protect his troupe. He also knows, from experience, where the best bananas are and where to go to avoid the winter weather. Direction. And when the young gorillas get out of hand, he can bring them back into good behavior through intimidation or coercion. Order.

What happens, though, when the rules of the game change? When a poacher comes into the forest with an automatic weapon? When the traditional water holes dry up? He no longer has the expertise to exercise his authority. Which gorilla is going to lead the group to safety? Who is going to persuade its members to give up their loyalties to the old ways?

What I find so refreshingly radical about this model is that the exercise of leadership can happen at any level of an organization. We don’t need to wait to become an elected official in order to help people face the inevitable loss when change is imminent. Leading is an act, not a position. In fact, being the person in authority is often a constraint to actually being able to lead.

We saw this at work in our country during the 1960’s. President Lyndon Johnson knew that the Voting Rights Act was an essential step forward for the whole country. Yet, due to his position as POTUS, he was limited in what he could do to get the American citizens to face the gap between what they espoused as values and what they actually allowed to exist.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., however, had no official authority in the government’s structure, although he did have authority over his congregation. His ability as someone outside the mainstream hierarchy allowed him the freedom to exercise leadership. Through his speaking, activation, inspiration, and challenge, he provoked the incidents that shone a light on the egregious nature of discrimination in the South.

We see it again as we face the terrifying combination of white supremacy, lawlessness, and greed in our elected president’s platform and personnel. Independent presidential candidate Jill Stein has no formal authority. Yet she has been exercising true leadership in her push to force ballot recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. She is willing to take this all the way to the Supreme Court. The people in authority — the DNC, President Obama, the Clinton campaign — are constrained by their position. They cannot act without public consequence, but Stein can.

At some point, the heat might get too high. When a cohort of U.S. armed services veterans arrived at Standing Rock to protect peaceful resisters from the brutality of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s henchmen, it was no coincidence that almost immediately the Army Corps of Engineers halted the construction of the pipeline through sacred lands. As a result, the heat dropped below what is called the “Productive Zone of Disequlibrium.” The sigh of relief that many felt is dangerous. What this drop in heat really means is that it’s time to reinvigorate the pressure until these lands are fully, finally, and legally secured, long held treaties honored, and Native American rights protected, both in North Dakota and throughout the United States. And, if we look at the even bigger picture, halt our damaging dependence on fossil fuels.

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It’s easy at the beginning to be passionate about the change we want to see. I’m keeping abreast of the petitions, phone calls, e-mails, donations, articles (including this one), that are driving the resistance to the upcoming debacle of a Trump-led country. Every time someone posts an opportunity to sign, it’s an act of leadership. Every time you put your name on a petition, it’s an act of leadership. Every time we make a call or write an e-mail, it’s an act of leadership.

We need to keep the heat high enough so that it stays in that productive zone until change happens. It must be constant. I ask that each of you think of yourself as exercising leadership on a daily basis. Stay informed through reputable sources. Donate money to the organizations that can protect our constitutional rights. Sign petitions that mean something to you. Make the phone calls, send the e-mails. Boycott products. Divest from banks. Stand with our Muslim friends. Fly a rainbow flag. March against hate.

This cannot stop on Jan. 20, 2017. Or even on Jan. 21, 2017, when thousands of informed and passionate protesters march in major cities all over the county. We may all feel pride at rallying so many people to stand against this new administration, but we can’t let one day’s mobilization feel like victory.

We must keep the heat on until the citizens of our country join in an understanding that an administration built on hate, divisiveness, supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and unabashed kleptocracy cannot, must not, ruin our country. This may take years. It may take a lifetime. And it will be worth it.


*Heifetz, Ronald, and Marty Linsky, LEADERSHIP ON THE LINE (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

Presence, Preparation, Persistence

November 9, 2016

Dear Secretary Clinton,

When I was a little girl growing up in Chicago, my dad told me I could be president of the United States. I didn’t really know what that meant or what it would take. I chose other paths because there wasn’t anyone to show me the way. Sixty years later, I’m helping women communicate better, negotiate more effectively, and think creatively about leadership. And now, there is someone who has shown us the way.

You have publicly faced the same kinds of debilitating challenges that all women face in their professional and personal lives. I hear stories every time I lead a workshop with women about the perils of being bright, articulate and ambitious. I often say, “It’s 2016, why must we still hide our brilliance? Or speak in a certain way? Or work harder? Or behave in a prescribed manner?”

Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard’s Kennedy School* has extensively researched the difficulties that women have in negotiation. She has found that if a woman asks for something for herself, she is seen as overly aggressive by both men and women. However, if she uses the language of “we”, she is seen as collaborative and amenable.

I’ve been helping women find the best inclusive language to use for successful interactions. For example, “Let’s figure out how to do this together”; “In order for me to do my best work for the good of the organization…”; “I’ve been talking with the group and they suggest that we…”

You have learned how to do this well. Your language in speeches and debates is focused on “we”, which is very different from the “I” language of your opponent. You began the third and final debate with these questions, “What kind of country are we going to be? What kind of opportunities will we provide for our citizens?”, and ended your concession speech with this hope, “If we stand together and work together with respect for our differences, strength in our convictions and love for this nation, our best days are still ahead of us.”

And you have learned how to smile. Again, I ask, “Why do we women need to be so pleasant all the time? It’s 2016!” Remember the criticism leveled at you that you never smiled? Why should that matter? Men don’t have to smile to be heard. Or to be voted into office. In fact, a snarl or a grimace seems to have worked yesterday.

But the evidence is overwhelming that, for women, being “relentlessly pleasant” both in our language and demeanor is the only way to move closer to, and eventually through, the glass ceiling. You have mastered both by creating a presence that is engaging and warm, with your eyes sparkling and your face positive and gracious.

You have also mastered the ability to hold steady through a barrage of cruel insults. You kept yourself physically open during the debates, seemingly unflappable on the outside, although I can imagine how enraged you may have been internally. Your shoulders stayed relaxed, your gestures spacious, and you remained calm and clear through the inanity. We can all take a lesson from your ability to weather the attacks with such seeming ease.

Which you only could have done with thorough preparation. It was obvious that you knew the ramifications, implications and history of every issue on the table. It was crystal clear that you had taken the time to frame your responses to every question. The depth of your preparation was astonishing and absolutely essential to your progress. But why wasn’t it enough, I wonder. Why did our country chose someone who is woefully under prepared to take the helm? I can only respond to those questions with the answer that you are a woman.

My final point: persistence. I teach women that negotiations are a “ten act play.” We plant the seed, we nurture the conversation, we engage the common purpose, we get our allies in place, we debrief our failures. And we come back. If we see the process as a single scene, if we hear “no” as “no”, we are done for. We need to think creatively about the next steps.

Your lifelong dedication to the women of the world is a testament to your persistence. You have been a beacon for many of us, from your “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” days, to your battle for health care coverage, to your public response to your husband’s failings. You have persisted through the 2008 primary loss, through 9/11, through the eleven hours of Bengazi grilling, through this grueling election season.

I can’t begin to think of how you must be feeling today. The exhaustion and frustration, let alone fear for our country. Did you bawl your eyes out last night like many people I know did? Was there any consolation?

My hope, Secretary Clinton, is that you persist. This may not necessarily mean another run for president. Maybe there are other ways for you to continue to do the amazing work that you have prepared your whole life to do. Maybe there’s another path to leadership. After all, to lead is a verb, something that you do, not a position that you have. And real leadership means helping people manage the loss they feel when their values are challenged.**

Please know that your achievements look like success to many of us. Re-frame this loss as a victory. You did win the popular vote. Go back to the drawing board and figure out where you could have done something different. Do it differently next time. Speak to women everywhere. Write about what you have learned. Help the next generation of women to rise by sharing your knowledge. By giving a hand up. Keep your words alive: “I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but some day, someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now. And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

You, Hillary Rodham Clinton have charted the path. At last.

*Bowles, Hannah Riley, and Kathleen L. McGinn. 2008. “Gender in Job Negotiations: A Two-Level Game.” Negotiation Journal (October): 393 – 410.

**Heifetz, Ronald, and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

On the Brink

I’ve been watching the Olympics this past week. Women athletes are setting new records on the world stage and breaking stereotypes in their home countries. Last Friday morning, I saw Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia run an unbelievable 10,000 meter race, blasting the women’s world record which had been in place for twenty-three years. Women were not allowed to compete in this event until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Now, it seems the most natural thing in the world for these extraordinary athletes to show off their skills and be rewarded for it.

We are also watching Hilary Clinton run for president. To many people in our country, this is a radical departure from what a woman should be doing. After all, it wasn’t until 1900 that all married women in the U.S. could own their own property; until then, husbands retained property rights. Women were only given full voting rights in 1920. It was 1973 before women had legal control of their own reproductive systems. And, although women were allowed to enter Harvard in 1977, it wasn’t until 1999 that the name Radcliffe was taken off the diplomas those graduating.

Clinton’s presidential race has me reflecting on the heroines who have come before us. We all are familiar with the long list of women who have broken the mold in politics, law, science, leadership, sports and the arts. And each of us has stories of our mothers and their mothers, who are heroines in their own right. I’d like to tell you the stories of my grandmother and my mother and why their stories matter today.

Hildur Lyceen arrived in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. She had left the grinding poverty and hopelessness of pre-WWI Sweden. She spoke no English and had no money. Her only skills were those that she had learned in her hardscrabble upbringing on the family’s plot of land. She met a young man on the crossing, whom she married. Hildur and Samuel started their new life on the East Coast. They had two baby girls. But Samuel had contracted tuberculosis during the hard conditions of ocean voyage. He died when the girls were one and two years old.

Hildur had no resources to turn to. She had some distant relatives outside of Chicago who were willing to take her in, but the babies weren’t welcome. Her only recourse was to put the two girls into an orphanage, where they stayed for years. Hildur learned English. She also learned a trade, becoming a seamstress for a downtown department store. When she finally had enough money and enough security, she was able to get her daughters back. A single mom, she raised her two girls during the Depression by making alterations to other women’s clothing.

My mother, Hildur’s oldest girl, grew up in the Swedish enclave in Chicago. When she was fifteen, she changed her name from Aina Borg to Carol Martin to escape the stigma of being the child of an immigrant. She graduated as valedictorian of her crowded urban high school. She trained for the only job available: secretary. This wasn’t enough for her, though, so she applied to go to college and was accepted, the first in her family.

As WWII was ending, Carol left college to join the corps of stenographers recording the war crimes trials in Manila. All the court reporters were women; all the lawyers were men. They took down the proceedings in shorthand and then transcribed them by typewriter. She traveled throughout the Philippines recording witnesses. She heard General Homma’s testimony of the Bataan Death March and was present at his sentence. When the trials were over, she was stationed in Japan for several years, where she continued her military court reporting.

When she returned to the States, times had changed. The post-war culture pressured women to marry and become excellent homemakers, which she did. Her energy, spirit, and intellect were now expended on how best to clean house, how best to cook three meals a day, and how best to raise her children. The loneliness must have been overwhelming. Husband gone all day, daughters at school, and the expectation that the house must sparkle and the food must be delicious. She excelled, of course, out of smarts, pride and duty.

Can you imagine her delight when both of her daughters graduated from Stanford? Can you imagine how she felt when her eldest, my sister, received her MBA and began her own business in the Bay Area? Or how if felt when she saw me perform on stages in Seattle and San Francisco? How proud would she be now of my years teaching at Harvard and the work I do giving women a voice in their lives and careers.

Sadly, my mom and dad’s marriage, which had always been rocky, seriously disintegrated. They lived in a state with no community property rights for women. She had been out of the work force for nearly thirty years, and her job skills, which had been in such demand before WWII, were seriously outdated. My dad refused to offer her any assistance if they divorced. The fear of returning to poverty overcame her, so she stayed. But the price was enormous: a total nervous breakdown.

She rebounded. She retrained herself. She had the guts, despite her fears and insecurities, to apply for jobs. In the early 1980s, she began working in the Government Accounting Office in San Francisco. She was so happy to get up early in the morning to take BART into the city. She was so proud of her paycheck. Now, it was up to my dad, who had retired from his business, to keep the house clean, plan the meals, and do the cooking.

Here’s what I’m thinking about their stories. First of all, immigration isn’t about now, it’s about the future. Every immigrant community has stories just like my grandmother’s, my mother’s and mine. Each generation takes the opportunities that are offered and makes life better for themselves, their families and the people around them. It’s a shortsighted policy to prevent people who are looking toward the future from joining the American experiment.

Second, the safety nets offered by the government are there to help hardworking people. If more comprehensive public assistance had been in place, my grandmother would not have had to give up her children for all those years. The damage inflicted on both her and on my mother and aunt was untold. What a difference housing and food assistance, affordable medical care, and access to job training and free education might have made.

Third, women have been gaining ground in the U.S., both legally and culturally, since my grandmother arrived in the U.S. Yet the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923, still hasn’t been ratified. And right now, there are political currents which could set us back decades. When she was First Lady, Hilary Clinton was vilified for saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.” She continues to be vilified for being strong, articulate, accomplished and successful.

Almaz Ayana ran the 10,000 meters faster than many of the male Olympians of the 20th century. Soon, the times will be equal. Women are the future. Think about your moms and their moms. Think about your sisters and wives and daughters and nieces. Think about your granddaughters. We are just at the beginning. When a woman becomes President of our country, we’ll finally see what’s really possible.

E Pluribus Unum

For almost two decades, I was on the faculty of an Executive Education program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I got to teach with two of the founders of the Adaptive Leadership model, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Working with these two phenomenal people raised my awareness of why we are always struggling to move forward.

One of the main tenets of Heifetz and Linsky’s work is the idea that there are two kinds of challenges that we face when change is imminent. One kind is technical, the other adaptive. I’ll give you an example: when a patient faces heart surgery, the surgeon uses her expertise to perform a complex procedure. This may include cracking open the breastbone, removing veins from the leg, replacing the damaged arteries of the heart with those veins, and then closing everything back up. This takes training, expense, and expertise, and the patient’s problem will be technically solved.

The adaptive challenge begins when the patient now must change his lifestyle in order to maintain the health of his heart. What if the patient loves his wife’s cooking? He can’t wait to eat butter and salt because that’s how he knows she loves him. What if the patient has never exercised and takes pride in that fact? What if his beloved son gives him a bottle of whisky and a box of cigars to celebrate his return from the hospital? The adaptive challenge lives in the arena of values and emotions.

What happens, typically, is that we use technical solutions when a crisis occurs, but we don’t face the adaptive challenges. Our country is very good at this. After 9/11, we had an incredible opportunity to change. The crisis was so enormous that that if President Bush had asked us to change our values, investigate our dependence on oil and examine how we as a country contribute to the chaos of the Middle East, we might have. Instead, he opted for the technical solution and chose to invade. Money and military know-how didn’t solve the real problem, but only created a whole new set of crises in world politics.

We saw this again when Dylan Roof executed nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Almost immediately, this crisis provoked a political discussion about changing the laws having to do with displaying the Confederate flag. Yes, this flag is a shameful symbol of a despicable time of our national history, but new regulations are only one part of the answer. They are a technical solution. The adaptive challenge is a bigger, messier one for our country to face. Who could lead us to confront and change the value system that led this boy to commit such a horrible act?

And now, we see this happening again. Omar Mateen murdered forty-nine people and wounded fifty-three more in his rampage at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The outrage is huge at the lax gun laws that allowed an FBI investigated security guard, who had been arrested as a teenager for battery, dismissed from his Florida Department of Corrections training, and is now known to have physically abused his wife, to purchase an assault rifle. Changing the laws is a necessary technical solution which has its own set of adaptive challenges.

But new guns laws aren’t going to address the change in values that our country needs to face. The real adaptive challenge has to do with the gap between who we say we are as a nation and what we actually do. The Declaration of Independence, that we celebrate today, says, as we know, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our history differs from these words. The genocide of the Indian Wars, the perpetration of slavery, the criminalization of homosexuality, the refusal to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the current demonization of Muslims, the all-too-frequent denigrating epithets, these are what we do, despite who we think we are.

The greatest opportunities for change happen when the heat gets high enough for everyone to take notice. Our patient hadn’t been able to breathe, his heart was fluttering, he felt like he had constant indigestion and his skin was gray. He knew something had to be done. The heat is really high right now for a massive change in national values. The laws to prohibit a flag or keep an assault rifle out of reach are necessary technical steps, just like coronary bypass surgery. But we cannot let ourselves be distracted by thinking that the technical is the only thing we need to do.

Somehow, we have to face the historical hypocrisy of our country. We have to work beyond hatred and mistrust of the other, toward tolerance of the other, to acceptance and love of the other. Then, we have to let the very idea of “other” wither away as an old-fashioned notion that no longer works.

How do we do this? Call out intolerance when you see it. Vote for candidates who stand for inclusion. Seek out and befriend the “other.” Make art that celebrates our common humanness. Write, act, speak on behalf of our need to move to the next level. As Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda so profoundly and publicly said, “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.” I hold out hope that our country can and will fulfill the promise it made two hundred and forty years ago today.

Heroism and Humanity

June 6th, today, we commemorate D-Day, the beginning of the operation that turned the tide of World War Two in the Allies’ favor. Captain Albert Wheatland Brown was there struggling through the chest-high water from a landing craft to Omaha Beach in the first wave of the assault. He was not there to kill the enemy but to put the bodies of the wounded back together.

Captain Brown was a front-line surgeon with the 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group. He had already witnessed the savagery of combat from Oran to Tunis in North Africa. His unit served in the invasion of Sicily. After the battles on the beaches of Normandy, he continued with the army through France and Germany. The 3rd “Auxers,” both doctors and nurses, treated the victims of Buchenwald and saved American prisoners of war abandoned by the retreating Germans — all the way to Berlin. At this point, the forty-two year old doctor received the Bronze Star for his heroism.

Captain Brown saw the real cost of war. He saw the devastation that weapons cause to the human body. How many lives did he save? How much suffering did he alleviate? How many could he only watch die? Whatever beliefs, education, rank, or history these soldiers had didn’t matter to him. He was there to heal them. He was called “the doctor who never sleeps.”

We citizens of the United States have a peculiar relationship with war. We say that we are a peace loving nation, but the words of our national anthem venerate bombs and destruction. Fighter jets fly over our holiday celebrations and sporting events. We applaud tanks and armaments in our parades.

Yes, of course, we must honor those who gave their lives for our country. We must also remember for which cause they gave those lives. Our country has been fighting a war of some kind for two hundred and twenty-two years of its two hundred and thirty-nine years of existence. At certain times in our history, war was the only answer. But the list of our unjust, unnecessary, and illegal wars is long.

And I totally understand the phrase, “Thank you for your service.” It’s a big change from the vilification that the soldiers returning from Vietnam received. But it has to mean more. Service to what? Service to a country that celebrates war for war’s sake? Service to war profiteers? Service to the murder of local civilian populations?

The Bronze Star sits prominently on a shelf in our living room. Right next to it is his son’s Purple Heart. Al Brown, Jr., my husband, knew he didn’t have the smarts to become a doctor, so he joined the Marine Corps in order to somehow live up to his father’s courage. It was a very different war.

Al talked on the phone a few years ago with a ninety-four year old doctor who had served with his dad in the 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group. “The surf at the Omaha Beach shoreline was too deep for me,” he said. He was going under, as many of the soldiers did when they jumped off of the landing craft. He told Al how Captain Brown made him hang on his shoulder strap as they floundered toward the beach. Al’s dad was 6’4”. Dr. Torrado was 5’6”. A small act of generosity, a huge act of heroism.

Captain Brown became Major Brown. Then, when the war was over, he became simply Dr. Brown. Instead of saving the dying, he brought babies into the world as head of obstetrics at an urban hospital. Ironically, he died from an infection after a minor operation at this same hospital. He was only forty-seven.

President Obama spoke these words at Hiroshima over Memorial Day weekend: “We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must re-imagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.”

Let’s listen to these words. Let’s be vigilant about ending our county’s addiction to war. Let’s bring acts of heroism into our daily lives. Let’s vote for people who aren’t trigger happy, who will keep our country safe by keeping us at peace. Let us, somehow, live up to the courage of Dr. Albert Wheatland Brown by giving our all to heal the wounds of our world.