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Earning Power!: To Coretta and Betty

Monday, February 27, 2006

To Coretta and Betty

This month two thought leaders, Coretta Scott King and Betty Friedan, passed away. Each of them stood for the great ideals of equality of opportunity and nonviolence in a world where we believe there is no ideal. And yet they changed individual people’s lives and eventually the world by appealing to our active minds and spirits.

When I met Coretta in the late 1980’s I was a waitress at a private party in her honor. A small venue, Coretta took the time to speak to me, holding my hand, asking me to join the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change in Atlanta. Her own peacefulness, serenity and grace were striking. She was soft-spoken. Her presence was moving. She projected her ideals in the way that her eyes glowed and her energy both intimidated and welcomed when you meet someone of true greatness. Though she reached out to me, she was bigger than I was, amazing and purposeful.

I didn’t move to Atlanta, but I carried the folder of information about the King Institute in a trunk as I traveled around the world, first to Africa with the Peace Corps, then to Japan and on to Istanbul where I taught English as a foreign language. When I was 23 my years of living overseas had ended. I got married young, then divorced, raising my daughter while continuing a career in the Fortune 100 as a single mother.

I never acted overtly or politically, but informally I couldn’t help but still carry Coretta with me. I had opportunities to meet other famous, sometimes powerful people. But meeting her, you never quite recovered from how genuine she was and how you could never be as graceful, as purposeful, as empowered to make a global difference.

However, you can take up a cause. What have you been called to do?

Today, along with raising up four children as did Coretta, maintaining a career and a new marriage, like many women I still believe in changing the world and making a difference. I believe that men matter in women’s careers, leadership and family life. It is all part of a discussion about values and concepts that express a man’s worth to his family and to successful women in general. That is why I write about the importance of change and a cosexual work environment.

Betty Friedan also passed on this month. I never met her, but her books were on my mother’s shelf next to Atlas Shrugged. I read about the problem that had no name, and how women had defined their lives around the needs of the man in their life, losing their own self. Through her book is over forty years old, she identifies issues that still hold us apart.

What I see in business today is women still defining their careers in terms of the men’s rules already in place. At the same time, I see men being bound by a “masculine mystique” that doesn’t allow them the freedom and flexibility to engage and to rise above stereotypes. Dominance and abusiveness doesn’t describe most of the caring and intelligent males I’ve worked with, or the ten types of men who help women that our association, Earning Power, has identified. I have also seen many women attacking their own femininity as sign of weakness, playing it down, beginning to look like men in order to succeed. And ironically attacking the type of men they themselves are trying to project as an image of strength for themselves. Perhaps you’ve met these women, too.

The mission can be adjusted. Yet instead of trying to improve things for both genders, we choose a gender war, choosing an unnecessary tension to permeate our relationships. Pushing forward to accommodate child-raising while conducting our daily business, we discover the focus still on the consumerism, the job of the mother to buy things for the home, as being a woman’s worth to magazine advertisers.

We see society’s exclusion of the male parent continue on the rise to the detriment of the family. Betty said the failure of feminism was that it sacrificed the family, so how can women participate wholeheartedly in a women’s movement that is chiefly concerned with preventing or eliminating pregnancy when the majority of women have at least one child by age 40? The women I know have kids and careers, just like the men I know. Why do we still only achieve salary parity when women choose not to have children?

The important question to ask ourselves is not what the legacy of these two great women is, but what our own legacy is. For when we see that women’s leadership and wage issues are tied to parenting, what is it worth if we weren’t able to put forth solutions that invest in our male and female children and defeat injustice for both genders?

Even if you are not moved by social injustice or human rights, perhaps you can be moved by the personal benefits in your own life from encouraging professional women and mothers to pursue careers that allow them to experience leadership and equal pay for performance. Take up your cause, privately, demonstrate it, publicly, and move forward with dignity. Thank you, Coretta and Betty, for these gifts. I will miss you.


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