To Braden, who insisted
TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT of young American women would rather win America's Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize.
Twenty-three percent would rather lose their ability to read than their figures.
When I read that Oxygen Media survey—that a quarter of us would rather win a contest for looking bootylicious in a thong than for, say, ending genocide—I tried to go to my happy place. But I couldn't get there. Because I know we have a problem, one that I don't hear anyone else talking about. The problem is not just about that 25 percent of young women who would rather be hot than smart; rather, it's about a culture that actually makes that a rational choice: rewarding girls for looks over brains. And it's about all of us, intelligent American females, ranging from girlhood to old age, who are dazzlingly ignorant about some critically important things.
An aggravating thing happened in the last generation. As girls started seriously kicking ass at every level of education (girls now outperform boys in elementary, middle, and high schools; we graduate from college, professional, and graduate schools in greater numbers than males—go team!), our brains became devalued.
This is part of what I call the Dumb American Syndrome. The majority of American men and women can't name a single branch of government, for crying out loud. Europeans and Asians consistently slaughter our high school boys and girls in academic competitions. But this book is about some of the fluffy-headed turns our American females in particular have made and how we can find our way again, because girls and women are my people. I was born a baby feminist and I've been a women's rights advocate, lawyer, and rabble-rouser for twenty-five years. Sure, it's a shame when men lose their way, too, and someone ought to write a book getting them back on course. But this book is a manifesto for my team about how we've lost our female minds on matters as big as neglecting our brutally oppressed third world sisters and as small as the fact that we still do way too much housework.
All of these symptoms are related. I'll explain.
Our blind spots are galling because damn, we have come so far in just my lifetime. Until the 1963 Equal Pay Act, it was perfectly legal, and common, for employers to pay women less than men for doing the same job. Now young, urban, childless women out-earn their male counterparts, mainly because they're better educated. Until the 1980 enforcement of Title IX began, schools could and did underfund girls' sports. Today no one thinks all the money should go to the boys' teams, and you'd be shamed out of the PTA for trying to keep your daughter away from soccer, which at the high school level is now 47 percent female. The U.S. Supreme Court did not recognize sexual harassment in the workplace as actionable until 1986. Virtually all employers now have written policies, trainings, and investigations to deter and monitor fair treatment of female workers.
We've achieved this historic sea change in laws and values, where nondiscrimination is now the expectation. Wonderful. Long overdue. Thanks Mom and your generation of fearless fighters for devoting your lives to bringing the norm of equality to us. So what exactly are we doing with it? I can remember when people levied serious opposition to Sandra Day O'Connor's 1981 Supreme Court nomination on the grounds that there was no ladies' room on the floor of the justices' chambers. But three more female Supreme Court justices and hundreds of thousands more women lawyers and judges later, more than two-thirds of us don't know what Roe v. Wade is.
The situation gets worse. Grown-up women giggle into TV cameras that they don't know how many sides a triangle has, nor can they venture a guess as to what country Mexico City might be in. I don't know which is worse: that we are playing dumb or that we really are that clueless.
Girls and young women earnestly analyze whether Angelina Jolie has another baby bump but know nothing about her life's work: bringing aid to millions of innocent refugees, people for whom our attention means the difference between life and death, hope or despair. Many of us spend more time looking in the mirror than looking out at our planet, and the thing is that doing so is rational because there can be a bigger payoff for being sexy than brainy. Young women have little motivation to think because the rewards for being hot are so powerful. Then, in our middle years a new wave of nonthinking sets in. Married women and working moms spin ourselves ragged in the work-kidshousework-repeat-repeat-repeat cycle. At this stage, who has time to think? And after age fifty-five we just want to rest, so we zone out in front of the TV significantly more than any other age group, relinquishing a full 25 percent of our golden years to Cialis ads and Cougar Town; as a result, seniors are the most overweight and obese age group.
Excuses, excuses. This has got to stop.
At all ages, we've become seduced by our shallow, self-absorbed celebutainment culture. You know: the one that breaks into regular network programming with Tiger Woods's apology for extramarital schtupping. The one that treats Anna Nicole Smith's or Michael Jackson's prescription drug OD with the kind of breathless coverage once reserved for the assassinations of heads of state. We watch, dazzled and dazed by the shiny, shocking stories, while a little voice stirring within us peeps that somewhere, somehow, there must be more important issues. But who can remember what they are? Who can find substance when we are fed an increasingly bloated, empty diet of reality shows, "news" segments on wrinkle fillers, and updates on drunken starlets? Network execs tell me they have to run these segments, as it's the only way to capture the female audience.
Dear Lord. Let's turn that ship around.
In our personal lives, our mental flaccidity means we outsource most of what our mothers and grandmothers did themselves. They relied upon their wits to pull themselves up out of life's challenges. We, however, have lost confidence in our ability to think for ourselves, so we give our lives over to "experts": therapists, life coaches, self-help gurus, talk radio blowhards. Whatever. Jersey Shore is on!
I want to jolt you into reclaiming your brain. You can still watch Real Housewives and read an issue of Us Weekly every once in a while, but not every day—because I have bigger plans for you.
We've got to use our brains for more than filler in the space beneath our smooth, Botoxed foreheads. The generation before us fought like hell and won for us equality in education and employment. Let's use that for a higher purpose than sending pictures of kittens on Facebook.
Warning: If you're easily upset, this is not the book for you. These issues are urgent and important and I don't sugarcoat the facts about how self-absorbed we've become or the costs of our distraction, like women who have actually died from plastic surgery or the millions of girls enslaved in the worldwide sex trade while we go shoe shopping. I don't like it when people beat around the bush when they have something to say, so I just come right out with it here. That's my style. And you can blast me back atwww.Think.tv, where this conversation continues ardently, passionately, blazingly—because that's how thinkers roll.
I'm not going to rant without offering very specific solutions. That would be just taking cheap shots. After I smack you upside the head with the hideous problem we've created for ourselves, how we veered off track into a culture of empty-headed narcissism, I'm going to lay out what each of us can do to reclaim our brains, to take care of business in our own lives, and to become real, true-blue contributors to the world—so we can make our mamas and our nagging little voices proud.
Good news! This isn't even hard once you start pushing back at some of the insulting nonsense our culture is offering up to us. For one thing, you're going to find more time in your life, and you'll learn some underreported fun facts about sex.
Bottom line: your critical thinking skills are desperately needed right now for your own good as well as for the sake of your community, your country, and your planet.
That nagging little voice? It's your brain, and it's telling you that it wants back in the game.
Let's get started.
I Came by It Honestly
That was IBM's corporate logo when I was growing up in the 1970s, and at the time it was the most famous motto in the world. "Dink," "tenk," "pensez"—the company hung those signs in the local language in its offices around the world. My favorite childhood magazine, Mad, parodied the slogan with their own sarcastic "THIMK," which I tore out and taped up on my wall next to young Paul McCartney's dreamy puppy dog eyes on my "Let It Be" poster. I giggled whenever I saw it: an exhortation to be intelligent and funny, all in one goofy five-letter package. For a nerdy girl who loved words, it didn't get better than that.
"Think" may as well have been emblazoned over the front door to my home. I was blessed with two parents who were independent thinkers, who got giddy from the thrills of facts and books and ideas. Sure, they sometimes veered off into blazing eccentricity—don't most brainiacs? That was all part of the fun.
You might know my mother, feminist attorney Gloria Allred, who's spent her high-profile life successfully fighting misogynists, sexual harrassers, racists, rapists, murderers, Holocaust deniers, O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson, dry cleaners who overcharged women, Aaron Spelling when he fired a pregnant actress, and airport security who wanted a passenger to remove her nipple ring. I learned at an early age: Don't mess with my mama.
Because he lived an isolated, ascetic life, you don't know my dad. My parents divorced when I was a baby. My father was a true '60s hippie whose hair fell to the middle of his back, even when it all turned silver in his later years. He wore Levis every day of his life. His faded, folded blue bandana in his back pocket served as a hankie for my sniffles, headband for his stray locks, or potholder when camping. At night, if I were lucky, he'd bring out his guitar or Dobro and, between hits of his medical marijuana, softly play Woody Guthrie, explaining to me that "This Land Is Your Land" was a radical, anti-rich-people song. This land isn't their land—the land of corporate greed—but ours. See, Lisa?
Really? I only knew the first verse, taught to us in school as a patriotic song, like "America the Beautiful" or "The Star Spangled Banner."
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
It always seemed so tame. No, my dad said, look closely at the last two verses, which most people don't know.
As I was walkin'—I saw a sign there
And that sign said—no trespassin'
But on the other side ... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city—In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office—I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.
Until my father got me to see whole story, the full lyrics, I didn't get it. Old Woody's anthem embraces people on welfare, folks on the wrong side of "keep out" signs. The song's not just about simple patriotism; it's about class struggle. I'd never thought of it that way. Yeah! The Man can't keep us out! We the people are taking our country back! My dad hated the corporate takeover of America—and he had the fine print of a song all schoolchildren learned on his side.
I'd never thought of it that way—the mantra of my childhood.
With my counterculture daddy, there was always some lesson he taught me that I would never have gotten in school, something that seemed subversive and improbable but that he proved with facts or whatever he had available. "Honkies stole rock and roll from black folks," he advised in 1972, when no one else was saying such a thing. He played Chuck Berry and then the Beatles to drive home his point, and damn if they weren't a blatant rip-off. Distrustful of cops due to police brutality against his people, African Americans, he subtly raised a Black Panther fist and crossed the street to avoid them when they approached and then sent me articles from The Nation or Mother Jones with all the statistics and anecdotes to back up his point.1
Oh, the African American thing? He was actually a lily-white descendent of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, but he self-identified otherwise. Both my parents firmly believed that biology was not destiny. For my mom, that meant women should not be limited to certain paths because of our gender. For my dad, it meant that family pictures of jazz greats John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong hung on the walls of his apartment next to pictures of my brother and me. If I pointed out that these guys weren't actually members of our family, he gave me a withering look. "Failure of imagination, Linseed," he suggested. (Wordplay with my name also produced nicknames like Lysine, Lizzy Borden, and, for some reason, JoJo the Dog-Faced Girl, which I swear was said, and received, with love.)
Neither of my parents believed in dumbing anything down for children. For my birthday my dad gave me Algerian anarchist Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, an anticolonist screed that examines the effects of imperialism on the psyche of colonized African nations. "Dear Lisa, smash the state!" he inscribed. I was twelve.
My father loathed Republicans but equally hated Democrats who were in bed with lobbyists, which he believed was most of them. He believed that every cent he spent was a vote cast for one thing or another, so he put a lot of thought into how he spent his meager Social Security checks. César Chávez's grape boycott, which he enthusiastically supported, warmed him up for so many other corporate boycotts that he actually subscribed to a boycott newsletter, listing which large corporations had polluted the rivers, lost a class-action sexual harassment case, or perpetrated consumer fraud. He took the antishopping list to the market with him and followed it closely. Did Coors really notice he wasn't buying their beer due to their antigay policies of the time? No matter. Though he detested the beer anyway, he boycotted it on principle.
One day, well into my adulthood, I told my dad I was looking forward to hearing the Dalai Lama speak in my town. I knew he'd be proud of me for exposing myself to this great modern progressive thinker.
"The Dalai Lama. Terrific," he said sarcastically, turning the page of his book, volume three of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The Dalai Lama—the nonviolent, contemplative man of peace, exiled as a child by evil China? Followed by millions worldwide, preaching love and kindness? The man who uttered two of my favorite quotes: "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible," and "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion"? My dad has a bone to pick with him?
"What's wrong with the Dalai Lama?" I asked.
"Lisa, theocracy is theocracy, whether it's the Taliban or the Dalai Lama."
That stopped me in my tracks. Every other hippie progressive liberal type I knew revered the Dalai Lama. But not my dad. "Beware of anyone who advocates a state religion," he said. "Avoid them like the plague."
"Our system, separation of church and state, is a beautiful system, and it is the only acceptable form of government, Lisa. Look up what Thomas Jefferson had to say about it."
So I did. Thomas Jefferson said, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." So much for the Founders setting up a Christian nation, as I, and so many Americans, had believed. Secularization—keeping religion, even a benign religion, entirely out of politics—was a bedrock American principle according to my dad and, well, Thomas Jefferson.
"But, but ... the Dalai Lama ..." I sputtered. I'd never thought of him as a theocrat. But it's undeniable. Different incarnations of the Dalai Lama headed Tibet, and from 1720 until China's invasion in 1950, this figure was to Tibetan Buddhism what the Pope is to Catholicism. However benevolent, even saintly, the current Dalai Lama appears to me, he's run the "Tibetan government in exile" since 1959 as a religious leader.2
Thus I lost another argument before it even began and was forced to think differently about what I'd thought was a settled subject. My dad's constant underlying message to me was: It doesn't matter what everyone else says, even everyone else of your political persuasion. Mull it over yourself—deeply. Go to your core principles. Examine the facts: What's really going on? Think, Lisa.
I'd never thought of it that way before.
My dad wanted radical hippie change in our country, especially for the poor, but he hauled out and properly hung his American flag on the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Veteran's Day and quoted the founders when he needed to. He was proud of our Constitution, our liberty, and our music (well, American music up to 1975), and that warranted flag waving. But he also saw dangerous trends beginning. He presaged the almost complete annihilation of our right to privacy when video cameras began appearing everywhere in the 1980s. "They promised us that social security numbers would never become a state ID number," he said. "But that's what they've become. The state will soon have total access to every bit of information about you. Don't give out your social security number." I thought he was a paranoid curmudgeon. Years later, after everyone else got on the social security number privacy bandwagon, it was too late: I'd been the victim of identity theft three times.
That my dad was so often ahead of his time wasn't an accident. He read almost nonstop every waking hour. As a young man, he was diagnosed with a severe mental illness, then called manic depression and later termed bipolar disorder. He suffered from sometimes weeks-long debilitating bouts of bleak depression and was unable to work. But most of the time that wasn't him. He could function and take care of himself, and during that time, he read. He read the entire local newspaper daily, every word of the Sunday New York Times, various esoteric journals like the James Joyce Quarterly, and enormous multivolume series on Ancient Greek, Roman, or Chinese history, one after the next. When he found an author he liked, say James Joyce or William Faulkner or Thomas Pynchon or John Updike, he read their work straight through, followed by thick books of annotations and commentaries. Waking daily at 4 a.m. and most days turning the pages until 9 p.m., he reluctantly allowed interruptions only for life-essential activities like grocery store runs, phone calls with me, or rooting for the Steelers.
With an unnerving ability to retain nearly all of what he read, my dad knew everything about everything and had a long, historical perspective when he held forth. He knew his stuff. You know how you grow up and have that moment of awakening when you realize Dad doesn't know everything? Yeah, that never happened to me.
My dad died a few years ago, and his legacy to me is my conscience's nagging reminder to learn more than anyone else about my topic and to assess every issue on its own without preconceived ideas of what I "should" think. In fact, when I'm "supposed to" think one way, a hard-wired streak in me draws me to the other side. My fervent desire in my TV appearances, public speaking, and writing is to provoke my audience into realizing, "I never thought about it that way." There I was on CNN, for instance, lifelong vegetarian and fired-up animal rights girl though I am, defending convicted dog torturer Michael Vick's right to get back in the NFL. I did this because reemployment for released inmates is important to me, and the man did his time (and because real justice—releasing him to a pack of hungry pit bulls—is unattainable).
WHILE MY DAD SAT HOME, using what he learned in his library books to challenge my assumptions about the world, my mother took her independent reasoning out into the light of day, challenging the status quo when it flew in the face of what she knew was right and fair.
I was in middle school when my mother began to practice law. Her first prominent case was on behalf of women prisoners who were shackled when they gave birth in the prison hospital. That struck her as just plain wrong. Were they going to trot off just as their baby's head was crowning? Wouldn't locking the door be a little more reasonable and humane?
She won, quickly, and got the county to change its policy. Mom 1, shackles 0.
Everywhere she looked, something rankled her sense of justice and, with her newly issued law degree in hand, she did something about it. She sued Sav-On Drug Stores, at my instigation, for having an aisle marked "Girls' Toys" (dolls, dress-up clothes, toy vacuum cleaners) and "Boys' Toys" (play guns, soldiers, cars).
Guess which side had all the play money?
In response, the company maintained that this is how toys had always been organized. (Cue the Fiddler on the Roof orchestra: traditioooon! TRADITION!) My mom brushed off that feeble argument. Imposing rigid gender roles on little kids was contrary to everything she believed in. The company caved, and now the aisles are simply marked "Toys." (And folks, you are suffering your own failure of imagination if you're giving your daughters, or sons, a play vacuum cleaner. Pul-eeze.)
At Back to School Night, other parents admired the kids' artwork on the walls and listened politely to the teachers' presentations. My mother leafed through our history books and asked why they contained nothing about women's history. In English, she wanted to know why we weren't reading any literature by African American authors. Sure, now that's all part of the curriculum, but in those days, the curriculum was George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Shakespeare, and Moby Dick—full stop. Boys took wood shop and girls took home economics.
Along came my mom, who enjoyed having me be The First Girl To.... See, in those heady days of 1970s feminism, you could be the first girl to do something every day before breakfast, with plenty more to conquer, because there were so many ridiculous boys-only activities and the barriers were dropping fast. I was The First Girl to Take Wood Shop ever at my middle school. Sawing through two-by-fours and working with that big ol' T-square was mad fun and an easy A. (Hey, I wondered, were all the boys-only classes easy A's?) But so were the fresh-baked cupcakes before lunch in eighth grade cooking class, so I took Foods too, alongside the first boys allowed to take that class. We fielded the First Co-ed Softball Team to play against the faculty in what had previously been a boys-only game. I was The First Girl Allowed to Wear Pants to a Square Dance in the fourth grade. And on it went: proud victories for truth, justice, and the American girl.
In college I joined the debate team. After three intensive years of around-the-clock researching, writing our "cases," preparing to attack the opposition, and arguing our little hearts out at universities all over the United States every weekend, we won the national championship, the biggest thrill of my life up to that point. I was featured in the local paper: "Top Female Debater Wins Honors," with a nice grainy picture of me in my peasant skirt and Farrah hair clutching my trophy.
I was pretty psyched. I showed my mom.
"Top female debater?" my mom pointed out. "What does female have to do with it? You are the top debater, period!"
I'd never thought of it that way. I did not debate the point with her.
OVERWHELMINGLY, my mother's cases have been David-and-Goliath battles, pitting her client, a powerless nobody (a secretary, waitress, security guard, prisoner), against a rich, intimidating behemoth (a Fortune 500 company, the U.S. government, the Catholic Church). Helping ordinary people get the justice they deserve has been my mother's life's work for over three decades. And she wins by outsmarting and outlasting her opponents—simple as that. She will fight for decades up through the court system, then in the legislature, then in the media, and then back to the courts—whatever it takes. She taught me through her example many things: Be skeptical of what the crowd is doing, be even more skeptical of what powerful people tell us, dig up all the facts and appraise them objectively, and, then and only then, reach my conclusion. Because things aren't always what they first appear to be.
And so she stopped me cold one day with this doozy. For my birthday a few years ago I had asked my friends to give to a national relief charity. She was against it. I did a double take. How could anyone be opposed to giving to help the needy—much less my mother, champion of the downtrodden?
"Lisa, don't give to charity."
Say what? There must be interference on the line, I thought. Then I realized I was talking to her face to face.
"Think about it. I get invited to a celebrity fundraiser in Beverly Hills for a hospital for the poor. It makes everyone feel great to support the inner-city hospital. But what about all the other poor people who don't have a celebrity connection to raise funds for them? What about all the other Americans who can't get to this hospital, and who die from lack of health insurance and lack of access to health care?"