Eugene Weekly : Natural Resistance : 10.09.08

The Larger Gender Issue
Building ‘women-friendly institutions’
by Mary O’Brien

In eighth grade, my math teacher was a woman. She clearly loved math and taught it well. That startled me and added a pleasant chunk to my evolving image of who women could be and what they might want to think about.

On the other hand, for some now-forgotten reason, I disliked my seventh-grade English teacher. I remember purposely annoying her on a number of occasions by raising my hand and pointing out to her and the class any words she misspelled on the blackboard. 

The years went by, me being pleasantly surprised to meet women who were undertaking a thoughtful, independent, accomplished route through life and vaguely annoyed with those who seemed to be drifting along as a woman obediently responding to others’ low expectations.

Of course my first impressions have often been wrong. Once, when flying home from the Midwest, a 30-something, attractive, mini-skirted woman came down the aisle. I generally like to work, rather than talk, on a plane, so I pretty much ignored her when she sat down next to me.  She wasn’t easy to ignore. As soon as the plane took off, she laid out Tarot cards with her long, bright red-fingernailed hands. I don’t remember what all else she did, but when lunch came (this was back when flights included lunch), I finally had to put my computer away, and she seized the moment to start talking with me. 

“I just LOVE airplane meals,” she told me. “I know people complain about them, but I LOVE getting my meal made for me, and I think they’re great.”

I asked where she was heading, and she said L.A. Turns out she’s a professor of Spanish at a Colorado college, and though she’s not Hispanic, some of her Hispanic ex-students who now live in L.A. had jointly given her a trip out to visit their community. She was thrilled. 

I asked her about how she taught Spanish. Like my eighth-grade math teacher, she clearly loved her subject. She said she loved to help students see how Spanish grammar, words and expressions conveyed particular cultural perceptions and approaches to events. She gave examples as she would in class.

So much for expectations.

Which brings me to Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. From the beginning of the Democratic primary, I preferred Obama, in no small, initial part because of Clinton’s vote to wreak death and destruction on Iraq in spite of information at the time that the weapons of mass destruction claim was almost certainly flat-out false.

It never occurred to me to support Clinton because she was a woman, let alone the astonishingly, dangerously narrow Sarah Palin.

It seems to me that more important than voting for a woman because she is a woman is strengthening the conditions that foster the independence, knowledge and skills of women so that more women run for office and lead at all levels of government — not just the presidency.

Fred Pampel, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, developed a measure of “Women-Friendly Institutions” by which nations can be compared. It is based on measures of child and family support, maternity leave, pre-school access, legal equality for women and employment support for mothers. Using this index, France, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway rank among the highest. The U.S. ranks in the lowest quarter of 18 developed nations, behind Canada, Ireland, England, the Netherlands and Italy.

As an example of use of this index, UO sociologists Bob O’Brien (my husband) and Jean Stockard have found that generations of children with higher rates of single parent families (with the single parent likely to be a woman) in countries ranking lower on the women-friendly index display higher suicide rates. This fatal difference between one- and two-parent families becomes rarer and near zero in high-ranking countries such as Sweden.

I would be prouder of our nation if we ranked first in women-friendly institutions than if our next president is a woman.

I can’t deny, however, that I’m pleased that the more qualified, democratic and honest candidate for mayor of Eugene this November is a woman. She has a track record of inclusive governance. It will be a pleasure to vote for her.

Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at