International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. Today I’m pleased to live in the country that was first to achieve women’s suffrage—in 1893. It would not have happened without the tireless effort of many women. Kate Sheppard, who led the charge, is commemorated on New Zealand’s $10 note.

Five bills giving women the vote, the first as early as 1878, nearly passed Parliament before the 1893 bill was successful. The successful bill was backed up by a petition signed by 32,000 women. That may not seem like a lot of signatures today, but it represented one-quarter of the female population of the country. That achievement, at a time before social media, e-mail, faxes, or even decent road access to much of the country, is truly astonishing.

Of course, suffrage was only one step in the journey toward gender equality. It wasn’t until 1933 that New Zealand saw its first female Member of Parliament, and though we’ve now had three female Prime Ministers, women are still underrepresented in the government. Women still earn 9 percent less than men (though that is much better than the 18 percent difference in Australia, the UK and the US). Women still face sexism at work and in daily life. There is still much to be done.

But I am heartened by the progress that has been made. It is encouraging to see younger women and girls speaking up and speaking out, and taking for granted rights and opportunities my generation was only beginning to grasp at their age.

As a Peace Corps volunteer twenty-five years ago, much of the work I did was with women, empowering them to be leaders in their community and beyond. It is generally acknowledged in international development circles that if you empower the women, you raise the well-being of the entire community (more so than if you expend the same effort empowering men). This is every bit as true in the developed world as it is in the developing world. No society benefits from oppressing half its population.

As a high school student, I participated in a job-shadowing day. At the time, I was interested in a career in wildlife management, so I shadowed a ranger at a local wildlife management area. When I walked in the door that morning, the director crossed his arms and scowled at me.

“We don’t like girls,” he said.

Well.

Sorry to hear that. We’re here to stay.

Silent No More

I have been trying to stay quiet during this election season. The rancorous debate over which candidate was less evil didn’t need one more angry voice shouting. But I was reminded today by my fellow writers that we have a moral obligation to be the voice that describes a different world. A world that celebrates diversity. A world in which everyone is safe, and free, and has food, housing, and health care. A world in which racism and sexism are not tolerated. A world in which people care about one another—not just about those who look like themselves and who worship the same god, but about the sum total of humanity. A world in which people think and act for the good of the planet, not just for today, but for the future.

It is our obligation to imagine such a world.

It is our obligation to remind the world of our own sad history, and ring the alarm bells when we see Hitler rise again. It is our obligation to bare the subtle ugliness in today’s world for all to see, and to imagine how it could be different.

But it’s not just writers who have an obligation to speak up. It’s time for everyone who values diversity to stand and be counted.

That Trump rose to the presidency on a platform of hate is a damning indictment of American culture. A culture that stands silent as it watches injustice, prejudice, and hate play out in myriad subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We can no longer remain silent. It is time to point out the hate wherever it shows itself. It is time to stop accepting that ‘haters gonna hate’.

What does that mean, from a practical standpoint? It means being brave. It means withdrawing financial and other support for organisations that perpetuate racism and sexism. It means speaking up when a friend or co-worker says something dismissive about ‘others’. It means banishing your own hateful thoughts and actions (because we all have them). It means volunteering your time to help those in need. It means lobbying your legislators. It means getting involved in your own local politics.

It will take so many actions, little and big, subtle and overt, to change the culture of hate. None of us can do it alone. But I know we are not alone. From my vantage point here in New Zealand, I know that much of the world is with us. Let us do them together. Don’t wait for the new year to make your resolutions. Make them now. Stand firm. Speak out. Imagine a world of love, and make it so.

Saturday Stories: Girl on the Plane/Boy on the Plane

dsc_0010-cropBelinda took her seat on the plane—12A—a window seat. She had just finished her Masters degree in aerospace engineering. Graduating top of her class, she’d had her pick of jobs. In the end, she’d chosen Lockheed Martin, not just because of the job, but also because it was located in Colorado.

A man sat down next to her. She smiled, and they shared a greeting as he buckled himself in.

Belinda grinned as the plane accelerated down the runway. For the first time in her life, she was leaving the Midwest. She was finally pursuing her dreams for real. Her first real job! She was already envisioning the trajectory of her career—as carefully calculated as the trajectory of the space craft she intended to design and launch some day.

Belinda had always been obsessed with space. She had asked for a star chart for her sixth birthday, and created a scale model of the solar system as a science project in first grade. She excelled in math and physics in high school. She had been accepted at MIT, but her parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, she had attended Iowa State University, where she had earned a full scholarship for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

As the plane reached cruising altitude, Belinda relaxed into her seat and watched the patchwork of Iowa farmland pass below. She couldn’t wait to see the mountains of Colorado. She would learn to ski, and maybe rock climb, too.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the man next to her. He was older than she—in her eyes, ancient, though he was probably only in his mid-fifties. He was well-dressed and unexceptional-looking.

“You headed to the ski fields?” he asked.

“No. Well, eventually I hope. I’m moving to Colorado.”

“Ah! Is there a special someone waiting for you there?”

“Um…No. I’m starting a new job there.”

“Don’t tell me…Elementary school teacher. I know they’re always short of teachers. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

“Actually, aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin.”

“Oh!” The man frowned. “Well, what made you choose that?”

The way he said that, it sounded like he was asking why she’d bought fried cricket clusters at the Iowa State Fair instead of French fries.

“I’ve always been interested in space. I used to make space ships out of Legos and calculate their trajectories to Mars.”

The man laughed. “And what does your boyfriend think of that?”

“Um…I don’t have one.”

“Oh. Married, then?”

“No.” Was he hitting on her? Surely he was way too old for that. “I’m not particularly interested in having a boyfriend or getting married.”

“Really? Now, that can’t possibly be true—a pretty girl like you? What makes you say you’re not interested in marriage? What about kids? Surely you want kids!”

“No husband, no kids. I’ve got other plans for my life—a career that doesn’t really fit in with a family.”

He laughed and Belinda realised he didn’t believe her. He was probably some crazy religious guy, like the one who had accosted her mother once in the mall, praising her for producing children because “God has called mankind to go forth and multiply.” He probably had a poor, harried wife at home with a dozen kids underfoot.

“And you? Are you married?” she asked to turn the conversation away from herself.

“Aw, me? Nah. Married to my business.”

 

_____________________

 

Jeff took his seat on the plane—12A—a window seat. He had just finished his Masters degree in aerospace engineering. Graduating top of his class, he’d had his pick of jobs. In the end, he’d chosen Lockheed Martin, not just because of the job, but also because it was located in Colorado.

A man sat down next to him. He smiled, and they shared a greeting as he buckled himself in.

Jeff grinned as the plane accelerated down the runway. For the first time in his life, he was leaving the Midwest. He was finally pursuing his dreams for real. His first real job! He was already envisioning the trajectory of his career—as carefully calculated as the trajectory of the space craft he intended to design and launch some day.

Jeff had always been obsessed with space. He had asked for a star chart for his sixth birthday, and created a scale model of the solar system as a science project in first grade. He excelled in math and physics in high school. He had been accepted at MIT, but his parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, he had attended Iowa State University, where he had earned a full scholarship for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees.

As the plane reached cruising altitude, Jeff relaxed into his seat and watched the patchwork of Iowa farmland pass below. He couldn’t wait to see the mountains of Colorado. He would learn to ski, and maybe rock climb, too.

His thoughts were interrupted by the man next to him. He was older than Jeff—in Jeff’s eyes, ancient, though he was probably only in his mid-fifties. He was well-dressed and unexceptional-looking.

“You headed to the ski fields?” the man asked.

“No. Well, eventually I hope. I’m moving to Colorado.”

“Ah! Is there a special someone waiting for you there?”

“Um…No. I’m starting a new job there.”

“Don’t tell me…Elementary school teacher. I know they’re always short of teachers. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

“Actually, aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin.”

“Oh!” The man frowned. “Well, what made you choose that?”

The way he said that, it sounded like he was asking why Jeff had bought fried cricket clusters at the Iowa State Fair instead of French fries.

“I’ve always been interested in space. I used to make space ships out of Legos and calculate their trajectories to Mars.”

The man laughed. “And what does your girlfriend think of that?”

“Um…I don’t have one.”

“Oh. Married, then?”

“No.” Was he hitting on him? Surely he was way too old for that. “I’m not particularly interested in having a girlfriend or getting married.”

“Really? Now, that can’t possibly be true—a handsome guy like you? What makes you say you’re not interested in marriage? What about kids? Surely you want kids!”

“No wife, no kids. I’ve got other plans for my life—a career that doesn’t really fit in with a family.”

He laughed and Jeff realised he didn’t believe him. He was probably some crazy religious guy, like the one who had accosted his mother once in the mall, praising her for producing children because “God has called mankind to go forth and multiply.” He probably had a poor, harried wife at home with a dozen kids underfoot.

“And you? Are you married?” Jeff asked to turn the conversation away from himself.

“Aw, me? Nah. Married to my business.”

 

Happy International Women’s Day!

Girls can have adventures, too.

Girls can have adventures, too.

It’s only fitting that today I celebrate two women who influenced my view of the world and a woman’s place in it—Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.

These two women were my heroes growing up. They defied everything society taught me a woman should be. They were bold, courageous, and smart. They spent their days scrambling through the rainforest wearing khakis, with their hair pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail. They believed passionately in their work, and Fossey even died for it.

I devoured every article about them in National Geographic and International Wildlife magazines. I watched every documentary on their work. I wanted to grow up just like them.

They taught me the value of patience. They taught me to sit still and observe. Watching how they studied apes, I learned to leave the butterfly net and jam jars at home—I could learn more by joining my subjects in their world than by bringing them into mine.

And when, as a teen-ager on a job shadow day, I was told by a burly wildlife manager, “We don’t like girls,” Fossey and Goodall were standing behind me. “Ha! I’d like to see him try to stop you! Hold your ground, girl!”

I know I am not alone. I am not the only girl who has taken strength from the women who have gone before them. I am not the only girl who might have caved in to dismissive career counsellors and teachers, to the stereotypes they saw on TV every day, to the expectation that even a ‘tomboy’ would eventually grow up into a ‘real’ girl. A generation of girls watched Fossey and Goodall and took notes.

I never did study big mammals like I wanted to, but not because of my gender—I found my skills and interests ultimately led me elsewhere. But Fossey and Goodall are still my heroes.

Thank you, ladies. For your groundbreaking research, and for being you. You have made a difference in more lives than you know.