July 1, 2010

Interview with a Fabulous Female

Barbara J. Berg is an award-winning teacher, writer, activist, consultant and working mother. She is the author of five groundbreaking books on women's issues, the latest of which, Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future, has received rave reviews. Ms. Berg took time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions about her career, her beliefs, and her hopes for the future of America.

AB: Tell us a bit about your career so far.

BJB: When I was working on my doctoral dissertation in history, I came across records of female voluntary associations formed in the early 1800s in all of the major US cities. These were groups of middle and upper class women who, against the wishes of their husbands, pastors, and indeed the whole weight of “proper society,” joined together to assist the destitute of their sex. They insisted on their right to do this work, even helping prostitutes and women convicted of crimes, without male chaperones or guidance. This was totally unheard of back then. These women forged an early and profound “feminist” ideology before the word was in use. They even signed their letters, “Thine in the bonds of sisterhood.” My male dissertation sponsors said “Go with it,” and this became the focus not only of my thesis, but my first book.

I’ve taught women’s studies at all levels and written five books and innumerable articles, all dealing with different aspects of women’s lives. Now, I’ve turned to blogging, both at A Blog of Our Own and other sites.

I’ve also been fortunate to have the opportunity to speak about various aspects of women’s lives in different venues all over the country and to participate in numerous organizations that work on behalf of women’s well-being and future.

AB: What got you into women's issues? Was there one defining moment or experience that made you feel it was an important cause?

BJB: There actually was a defining moment that in many ways charted my career. When I was quite young, my father, a college professor, was stricken with Parkinson’s disease. He was only 43 years old at the time. When my mother told me, she started to cry, “I wish it were me, I wish it were me.”

When I asked her why, and this I remember so clearly, she said, “Because if I were sick, Daddy would be able to support the family, to see that I had everything I needed. What will I be able to do?” Then she looked at me and said gravely, “You must always be able to work, do you understand?” At the time, I didn’t understand. I thought my mom was amazing. She’d gotten a scholarship to Barnard College and earned the rest of tuition by working at Macy’s department store. I was certain that she’d be able to get a wonderful, well-paying job. Back then I didn’t understand the cultural noose cutting off women from professional employment.

AB: What inspired you to write Sexism in America? What was your hope for the book?

BJB: My inspiration came from a group of women of differing backgrounds and ages, watching Katie Couric on TV and waiting for my son’s Halloween Party to begin. This was 3 ½ years ago, before the game-changing interviews with Sarah Palin, and Couric was still getting a lot of criticism about her appearance and mannerisms. One young woman commented how unfairly Couric was being treated and told us that a CBS reporter had accused the network of “tarting up” with her. That started the conversation…it went from the hypersexualization of Halloween costumes for adults, to those available for children, to the way women were being demeaned in popular culture and in work. As I listened to this eclectic group of women, many of whom were meeting each other for the first time, pour out their stories, all I could think of were the Consciousness Raising Groups of the 1970s. I decided to do research to find out how prevalent these concerns were. Unfortunately, I discovered the persistent reality of sexism in America, Often subtle, but so pervasive and dangerous, that I began to think of it as the Sexism of Mass Destruction.

I hope that the book will serve as a wake up call that we are not living in a post-feminist society and that, in fact, we have actually lost rights and opportunities over the past decade. The book also provides a brief history of the women’s movement in this country as well as a blueprint for change. One of my messages that I care deeply about is for women, young women especially, to transcend the media myth that we are naturally competitive and enemies of one another. Much more unites women than divides us. I’d like to see us discard the message of popular culture, especially reality shows, and go from looking at each other as adversaries to allies. Most of all, I want to start the conversation going again about how we can bring about a more equitable society for our daughters and our sons.

AB: What results have you seen from your book? Have you heard any stories about how it has affected people?

BJB: I’ve been extremely gratified by the reception the book has gotten. And yes, I receive emails, letters, comments on my website about how the book has impacted individual women—everything from women taking on sexual discrimination at work to starting an organization for young women on a college campus to repairing a broken relationships with mothers and friends.

AB: What would you recommend women do to make a change in their communities and lives, even if they aren't activists?

BJB: Today it’s possible to be involved is so many ways. A good starting point is to sign up for a Google Alert for a topic in which you’re interested: domestic violence, for example. You’ll receive all kinds of information about what’s being done nationally and locally. There are petitions to sign and letters to write.

I suggest that anyone with young people in their lives should make a point of seeing what children are being taught in school about the contributions, struggles, and successes of more than half the population. Is women’s history being taught? Do young women see examples of female scientists? Engineers?

Ask local hospitals to sponsor Women’s Health Day or Week; ask libraries to stock books on women; include books by and about women in book club readings; donate gently used clothes to organizations like Dress for Success which help women reenter the workplace; become a Big Sister, a mentor, a tutor. Use our power as consumers to resist buying products that have advertisements that demean women and let the company know about your boycott. Refuse to see movies that exalt violence against women or belittle us. Support and check in with the women’s news media: Women’s Media Center; Women's eNews, Women in Media and News, etc. so you’ll have a fuller picture of women’s lives. And most of all, look upon other women with kindness and understanding.

AB: Is there one specific issue that you think is of tantamount importance to women today, or should be?

BJB: Whatever is important to individual women…that’s where they should/could put their energies. I personally believe that keeping and extending reproductive justice is crucial because if we can’t control our own bodies and the decisions about having children, we truly can’t control our lives or our futures. Beyond that, I’m terribly worried about the health and lack of affordable, accessible healthcare for women in America. For the first time since 1918, we are actually dying at younger ages than our mothers did…so that is another area in which I work as part of Mount Sinai’s Community Board. I’m also a Vice President of the Board of the New York Correctional Association, involved in prison reform especially for women who are perhaps the most invisible sector of our population. Another area that is important is government supported, sponsored childcare is absolutely vital to maintaining the wellbeing of working families.

AB: Do you have a motto that you live by?

BJB: With apologies to Robert Browning, I’ve always been inspired by a line in his poem, Andrea del Sarto: “A [wo]man’s reach should exceed… [her] grasp…” as well as by a motto of the second wave women’s movement, “Sisterhood is Powerful.” All of the great movements for social justice in this country have achieved successes by groups of like-minded people uniting and fighting for a common cause. And in support of the late Dr. George Tiller whose favorite motto was “Trust Women,” I now wear a bracelet from NARAL with that inscription.

AB: What are you currently working on?

BJB: I’m spending much of my time traveling and talking about sexism in this country and what we can do to bring about gender equity. I’m also working on another book...this time, a novel.