Monday, July 30, 2012

Mermaids or Olympic Gold Medalists?

The St. Augustine Record, a Morris Newspapers Publication, today features a front page above-the-fold spread on women's Olympic swimming tryouts held in the mid 1920s at the old Alcazar Casino pool (now a Museum with shops)in St. Augustine. Just below the photo of the pool is the headline "Olympic champ Sybil Bauer was Ed Sullivan's girlfriend." Who was Sybil Bauer? Page 10A has a Pride of Olympians article showing Sybil Bauer first as a 1924 gold medalist for the 100 meter backstroke. In keeping with the 1920s (and beyond) era, the status of Sybil as Ed Sullivan's girlfriend was far more important for page 1 news than her Olympics gold medal. As in recent times, the twenties featured big debates over women's physical strength, stamina, mental toughness as sports competitors, especially in world Olympics. Those issues continue to be raised about women leaders, especially political women. As Aileen Riggin Soule, the first Olympic springboard diving champ, later pointed out that the young women in the modern Olympics era were "far superior" to her group of winners. Regardless, these women in the 1920s were first and as Aileen says, "There was no one to copy. We had to do things on our own initiative." Remember these early women when you watch the Olympics in 2012. Women swimmers today become medalists and have outgrown the "mermaid" status of yesteryear. Someday perhaps women leaders will be allowed to progress to leadership status rather than the female whose private life is subject to criticism and judgment from those who are no better or different.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Yesterday my daughter and I went to the Margaret Thatcher biopic with Meryl Streep playing the title role.  We both had tears in our eyes as we left the theater and had to deep breathe a while before we could talk about it. 

Thatcher was the first woman to be elected (without succeeding a husband) as the leader of any country in the Western world. She left office in 1990 yet her heartfelt actions and policies continue to be debated today by both her admirers and detractors.  No leader departs office with a perfect record in everyone’s opinion and Thatcher was no different.

What is sad about this movie is the perspective from which her life is viewed. Thatcher, in her late 80s now, is suffering from dementia and that is how her story was presented. Her memory flashbacks about her life were commented on throughout the movie by her deceased husband who presented a theatrical Greek chorus response to her thoughts. 
A stunning review in Bloomberg News by Virginia Postrel coins the underlying theme of the story:  “…the loneliness of her old age represents a kind of karmic payback for her hubris in seeking to leave something more to history than her genes.”  

To elaborate on that thought, remember that women have always been limited to birthing and taking care of the male leaders in the world until the world began changing in the 20th century.  Margaret was three years old when England passed suffrage in 1928 (eight years after the US). By design or not, this movie is full of reminders about the way women historically have been culturally viewed as limited (or restricted) to the nurturing, caregiving role in life, and never capable of leadership other than in the home.

Women running for or holding public office even today can count on being questioned about how they expect to handle their home duties and their day jobs in the public sphere.  Only women have had to explain themselves and their AMBITION to be something more than the cultural caregivers and nurturers society has declared them to be. (Men, however, have routinely had to explain their behavior in relation to women, and how what they do in private reflects on their public actions.)

To gain an understanding of how women were viewed as political leaders not long after Margaret Thatcher was elected to Parliament in 1959, a BBC interview is available that reveals the early Thatcher. Thatcher was closely questioned, with her young twins by her side, about how she could successfully juggle her life in Parliament with her domestic duties. A housewife, community activist and barrister, she pointed out that she still did all the cooking and shopping and that Parliament’s recesses fell in line with her children’s school holidays.  

{To judge her beginning in politics, either search for Margaret Thatcher On Her Maiden Speech in the House of Commons; or try this link: }

Eventually Thatcher’s close advisors and supporters in Parliament informed her that she had a highly pitched voice (apparent in the BBC video interview) and she must change it if she wanted to sound like a leader instead of a silly woman. 
In possibly the most condemning scene of a mother focused on her ambition instead of her children takes place when Thatcher drives to Westminster.  The camera shows her young twins running after her car screaming and crying “Don’t go!” while she scrapes toys off the dashboard. This is a fictional scene conceivably created to continue the critique of a woman working outside the home because her twins were adults when Thatcher was head of the Conservative party.

Now that Margaret Thatcher is in her 80s and classified as suffering dementia, will we all be still and quiet while she is ignored for her achievements as the first woman elected on her own merits as leader in the Western World?  

Will we all forget that Thatcher, the housewife/barrister who became the first woman Prime Minister, led England out of a recession, fought against Argentina in defense of the British Falkland Islands, and confronted the influence of the Soviet Union as well as socialism?

I was invited to write the section on Women and Politics in the 1996 edition of MacMillan’s Encyclopedia of the Future and included this commentary on Thatcher: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher showed the world that she could be as tough in leading Great Britain to war against Argentina as she was on social issues.

Margaret Thatcher paved the way in the West for more women to lead. She deserves better treatment than what this movie offers. She was not a perfect leader nor a perfect woman but she introduced the world to what women leaders can do as an offset against all male leadership, which, as we all know, has led the world to the economic condition it now suffers from in the third millennium of all male leadership.

Note:  Meryl Streep is a founding board member of the National Women’s History Museum and I am a charter member.  This is the same museum that some Congressional leaders do not want to be built on the Capitol Mall even though it is privately funded by donations.  What can possibly be the reason behind Congressional opposition to honoring the nation’s women who have achieved the impossible in a world that made it difficult for women to be far more than the ancient church declared and intended them to be?

Streep, by the way, has donated her salary of one million dollars from The Iron Lady to the National Women’s History Museum.  If you are interested in seeing this museum built, here is the address:
National Women’s History Museum
Administrative Offices
205 S. Whiting Street Suite 254
Alexandria, VA 22304