Joyce Terhaar

The Conversation: Outcry to change society’s view of women

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Here’s my takeaway from two very different national conversations this past month about the place of women in today’s society: hope.

Hope that the conversation around the abrupt firing of Jill Abramson, editor of the esteemed New York Times, will send a strong message to leaders everywhere that if you don’t yet have a clear path to success for women, it’s well past time to create one.

Hope that the raw, pent-up anger erupting in more than 1.6 million mostly female tweets in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara killings will fuel change from the ground up.

Hope that the conversation has just begun, that it doesn’t quickly fizzle, that many choose to participate. That it matters.

Cultural change comes slowly, but it can be fueled by frank conversation and shared understanding. That’s sometimes the value we find in the aftermath of traumatic news, it’s an opportunity for so many people to speak out.

These two very different news events are each personal to me. As a lifelong journalist and now an editor, I was glad from afar to see Abramson promoted because it sent a message of recognition about the contribution women have made to the news industry.

The shootings in Santa Barbara hit far too close to home. My youngest son is a UCSB student who lives in Isla Vista just down the block from where the killer crashed and shot himself. I have spent the last week grateful that he and his girlfriend were in my kitchen with my husband and me when they started hearing from friends about the chaos in Isla Vista.

Elliot Rodger killed six UC Santa Barbara students in Isla Vista, the town adjacent to campus with student-filled apartments, fraternities and sororities. He planned to kill far more people, and he almost did, injuring another 13. It’s likely his choice of dates limited the dead: Plenty of students were out of town for the holiday weekend, including many in sororities and fraternities on an annual trip to Las Vegas.

Rodger killed himself but left behind a 140-page manifesto and a chilling YouTube video filled with misogynistic rage toward women because he still was a virgin and “You girls have never been attracted to me.” He wrote that “after I have annihilated every single girl in the sorority house, I’ll take to the streets of Isla Vista and slay every single person I see there.”

Media reports indicate Rodger was mentally ill. Even so, for many women he quickly came to represent every unwanted sexual advance, every time it felt dangerous to walk to a parked car at night, every time they had felt demeaned or discounted by the opposite sex. All those feelings coalesced on Twitter under the hashtag #YesAllWomen. By Tuesday morning more than 1 million messages had been tweeted. By Wednesday it was more than 1.6 million.

The tweets are brutally frank, and many focus on fundamental rights. Celebrities from Maria Shriver to Mia Farrow have weighed in. Tweets criticize realities familiar to women everywhere but especially to young women who are taught to yell “fire” instead of “rape” to get help faster; who carry car keys with the pointed end stuck through a fist in case that’s needed; who routinely wear a fake wedding ring or say they have a boyfriend to ward off unwanted attention.

#YesAllWomen is sometimes a discussion about life and death issues.

In contrast, the Abramson firing stirred the collective frustration of women further along in life who want more. Regardless of the reason she was fired – that’s not clear despite all the media attention directed at the Times – she’s become a symbol of inequality for women who are ready to run a company, sit on a board, participate in the leadership of their city, their state, their nation. Who are tired of talking about a glass ceiling or a glass cliff.

I graduated in 1981, from what is now The University of St. Thomas, as part of the first class of women admitted to a historically all-male college.

It may have been that unique situation that left me with the naive view that the battle for equal rights for women already had been fought and won.

Harassment in my first job shocked that belief out of me. Unwanted attention in my second confirmed there was work to be done. I was luckier than many women in that I had support in both situations from high-level management, though it was clear they were just beginning to learn how to manage workplace sexual harassment.

I learned what many other women have as well: Social change is difficult and slow. Subtle views passed from one generation to another are difficult to rethink, they’re a habit and perhaps even well-intentioned. Add to this the complexity of the evolution of relationships between men and women and it’s no wonder that many women believe the fight for equality is in its infancy.

Women still rightly complain about pay inequity (the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2011 that in 2010 women were paid 77 percent of what men were paid). Yet there has been measurable progress in the last few decades. Women such as Mary Barra of GM or Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are running significant companies. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have been California’s senators for more than two decades.

I work in a company with strong female leadership at the helm. My publisher, Cheryl Dell, is among the women running three of The McClatchy Co.’s top five newspapers. In The Bee’s newsroom, three of my five senior editors are women.

It matters that women are in a position to be influential. It matters that women feel safe. It matters that women command respect.

The question now is this: Will this latest conversation matter?

I have hope.