The political power of outsider women



Originally published in the Boston Globe Magazine

A YEAR AGO, Jackie Katz wouldn’t have called herself a political person. She voted. She followed the news. But the Wellesley High School history teacher, 34, says she “was one of those people who was disillusioned about politics. Because this system feels broken and corrupt.”

Then came November 8, 2016 — and Katz, flush with frustration at the results, found herself on an unlikely new trajectory. In January, she attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., then answered the call to action to meet in “huddles” with like-minded people, keeping the movement alive. And over the course of those meetings and venting sessions, she came to realize that the skills she had honed as a teacher, from speaking in public to encouraging civil debate, could make her a viable politician.

Now Katz is running as a Democrat for the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex state Senate seat held by Republican Richard Ross, making the rounds of picnics and meetings when not working full time — all while pregnant with her first child. Politics still feels broken, she says, but “what this election triggered in me was ‘Well, you have to do something to change it.’ ”

The 2016 presidential race will go down in history for many things, and one of them is unfulfilled promise for women in politics. But in no small part because of Donald Trump’s surprising victory, 2017 and 2018 are shaping up as years to watch. A survey this year by American University, Loyola Marymount University, and Politico found that a quarter of Democratic women who are now considering running for office were directly motivated by Trump.

How many of those women will actually appear on a ballot, the report notes, is unclear. But frustration with Trump winds through the personal stories of many newcomer candidates in Massachusetts, seeking offices in bodies that range from the Boston City Council to the Legislature (which is 26 percent female, while women make up 51.5 percent of the state population) to Congress.



Oh, the places you’ll go when you’re blinded by politics

Melania books

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti

By now, you’ve likely heard about the Cambridge school librarian and her open letter to Melania Trump. The First Lady had committed the act of sending the school 10 free Dr. Seuss books, in honor of National Read a Book Day. The librarian published a blog post rejecting the gift — it should go to needier schools, she wrote — and trashing Dr. Seuss for good measure, on the grounds of being “a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature” who is also “a bit of a cliché,” and … wait for it … “steeped in racist propaganda.”

It’s such luscious Cantabridgian self-parody that picking it apart feels almost too easy. As most preschoolers are taught, the proper response, when presented with a gift you don’t want, is “thank you,” with no further commentary. And dismissing Dr. Seuss’s entire body of work as racist? “The Sneetches,” published in 1961, is the foundational text for teaching the perils of prejudice. (If you don’t believe me, ask Barack Obama.)

The Cambridge schools have already taken care of scolding the librarian. Now, we’re left to consider the sadder part of this story: why it’s so easy, these days, for smart people to lose all sense of perspective. Because this librarian is hardly alone. In an age of outrage, tribal warfare, and proudly-proclaimed resistance, we’ve lost something big: The ability to call them as we see them.

Read the rest here.

‘What Happened’? A better question might be: Why write it?

Originally published in the Boston Globe.

One of the enduring critiques of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was her failure to explain her vision in a cogent, compelling way — to give a reason “why,” beyond a justified feeling that she wanted the job, and could do it well.

This was partly cliché, another piece of the campaign narrative, but it was also true. Even Clinton acknowledges it in her new campaign memoir, “What Happened.” And the same complaint could be made of the book itself: What was the purpose of writing it, beyond the obvious answer of “because people will buy it”?

If you are looking for juicy insider gossip and a scathing assessment of missteps, this is not your book. If you’re looking for a fresh and clear-eyed manifesto about the Democratic Party’s failings, this is also not your book. These books have been written by others, and more will be.

This book offers something else. After the election, you may have been cornered by a relative or stranger or friend, and forced to listen to a detailed political manifesto, a rant at the universe, happy or sad. “What Happened” is that experience — Hillary cornering you in a coffee shop, replaying the game tape, and explaining why she was right.

Read the rest here.

Talking points — and the president we need

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti

Maybe this is what happens when we elect a president who doesn’t sound like a politician.

Remember that one huge element of Donald Trump’s appeal, back in the 2016 campaign, was his language: The fact that he didn’t use the measured, circumspect tones we’ve come to expect from American politics. The familiar dances around controversial issues. The consultant-grade boilerplate language, designed not to offend.

Trump was designed to offend. That’s how he built himself up from a real estate mogul’s son to a tabloid mainstay and, later, a reality TV star. He learned what he learned and applied it to politics. And for many of his fans — well beyond his birther micro-base — his coarse speech throughout the campaign wasn’t a bug; it was a feature.

As Trump batted at the power structure and insulted everyone in his path, he became an irresistible mainstay of cable TV, winning millions of dollars in free advertising. But his rhetoric also separated him from the pack. For some, like the people marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville last weekend, it was a racist dog whistle. For others, it proved he wasn’t one of those inauthentic, practiced politicians, the products of a Washington establishment that much of the electorate had been conditioned to hate.

Read the rest here.


The Real Reason Women’s Careers Stall (Hint: It Isn’t Laundry)

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti

If I see another headline or stock photo that blames women’s pay gap on the fact that working women have to do the laundry, I’m going to vomit.

Sorry for the intense reaction. But it happened again the other day: Another study came out that parsed the complexities of career advancement, the tangled web of decision-making and cultural norms that has led us to this place of systemic inequality. And in the internet retelling, it all got reduced to the image of a woman in unfashionable business clothes, gazing sadly at a laundry basket and a pile of Legos.

I won’t name the news outlet that selected this gem, because it’s hardly the only one. And I won’t blame Sheryl Sandberg, who, in her “Lean In” days, popularized a professor’s crack about how the best thing men could do for women’s advancement was “the laundry” — a great half-joke that, a couple of generations ago, might have been true.

Yes, we can still calculate the gaps in domestic workloads — five hours for me, three-point-seven hours for you! — and the studies in question found some inequalities. But blaming husbands, or laundry, is reductive and outdated. Worse, it’s a distraction. Sure, career advancement is easier for women with stay-at-home spouses or bottomless pools of expensive help. (I’m looking at you, Ivanka.)

But the real, persistent reason for women’s stalled careers isn’t the fact that there’s laundry to do, or carpools to run, or homework to assist with, or any of the other obligations that fill so many people’s hours in those too-brief years of full-on family life. It isn’t even that we lack the right volume of paid leave policies and childcare subsidies. It’s that the currency of success in too many office settings — face time, meeting attendance, the ability to drop everything on a dime to conform to the packed schedules of the C-suite — is out of whack with modern reality, for both genders.

Read the rest here.

The Strange Psychological Power of ‘Fox and Friends’

Fox and FriendsOriginally published in Politico Magazine

It was a typical Tuesday in March, and President Donald Trump was getting hammered by the press. One of his signature campaign promises, repealing Obamacare, had just collapsed. The Republican co-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, investigating ties between Trump associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign, was under fire for a secret meeting on the White House grounds. And Gallup’s recent poll numbers showed Trump at 36 percent approval, a historic low for a new president.

But Trump was starting his day, as usual, with “Fox & Friends,” where the world looked decidedly sunnier.

Here was an ultrasound image of his ninth grandchild, in utero. His meeting with women business owners, described in glowing terms. And his enemies defanged: According to the hosts, it was Hillary Clinton’s cronies—not Trump’s—who had the problematic Russia contacts, prompting Trump to tweet: “Watch @foxandfriends now on Podesta and Russia!”

Trump’s cozy relationship with “Fox & Friends” has become one of the great curiosities of his unusual presidency. A well-known cable TV devotee, Trump has found inspiration for his Twitter timeline in various programs—but none so much as Fox News Channel’s 6-9 a.m. talk show. A man with access to the highest levels of the national security apparatus regularly uses this gabfest as an unimpeachable source of information, most notably when he spawned a mini diplomatic crisis by repeating an unfounded theory—delivered by a Fox News analyst from a “Fox & Friends” armchair—that the British spied on Trump on behalf of the Obama administration.

It’s not hard to understand the show’s appeal. While the rest of the media frets and wails over Trump’s policies and sounds the alarm over his tweets, “Fox & Friends” remains unrelentingly positive. It’s pitched to the frequency of the Trump base, but it also feels intentionally designed for Trump himself—a three-hour, high-definition ego fix. For a president who no longer regularly receives adulation from screaming crowds at mega rallies, “Fox & Friends” offers daily affirmation that he is successful and adored, that his America is winning after all.

Read the rest here.


The perils of the PTA

Originally published in Zocalo Public Square

Here’s a quick quiz for anyone who has ever had kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews in school: Can you name all of the fundraising items you’ve purchased from the PTA (or whatever acronym represents your committee of ruling parents)?

I can. Over the years, for the sake of my children’s enrichment, I have ordered gold-standard wrapping paper, reusable polyurethane bags, various types of overpriced produce, several mugs embossed with childhood art of questionable quality, and a decidedly non-miraculous miracle sponge.Curtis Richardson

Most working parents I know have a love-hate relationship with the PTA, that benevolent oligarchy in yoga pants. PTAparents are cliquish and relentless, but hard-working and sincere. And ultimately, they’re not the ones to blame for all of the needling flyers, fundraising packets, and soul-crushing suggestions that if you don’t buy gourmet grapefruit, the field trip to the petting farm won’t happen, and everyone will be sorry.

No, the real problem is a system that has yanked the parent organization from its roots: an advocacy group, founded in the 19th century by women who couldn’t vote, which has successfully pushed for kindergarten, mandatory immunizations, and child labor laws. There’s still a National PTA, based near Washington, D.C. But over the years, many school-based groups have lost faith in its agenda—or decided the dues weren’t worthwhile—and gone independent.

And without a common purpose or an overarching mission, many PTAs have evolved into school-based fundraising machines, largely divorced from the “teacher” part of the name, and generally turned inward. (By the time the country song “Harper Valley PTA” came out in 1968, its clannish reputation had been sealed.)

In the process, PTAs have replaced true community with something that’s essentially the opposite.

Read the rest here.