The Bitch Is Back (And Getting Protested)

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Lizzie Skurnick and DSpar

The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer, deals with the crises of middle age for women. It’s the sequel to her first book, The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. Last night, a group of authors including Barnard’s very own Debora Spar, read excerpts of their pieces in the book. The reading, held in the Diana Event Oval, also hosted an unexpected protest by students who stood up during DSpar’s piece on botox, asking her to consider and stand up for heavier issues, like POC rights. We sent senior staffer Sarah Dahl to hear it all.

I was first shocked, walking into the Event Oval, by the sparse audience. I’d expected a large crowd for the big-ticket names. The last time I’d been in the Oval was to shop Michael Miller’s Intro to American Politics, and there’d been over 300 of us. Now, I was sitting among a small crowd of mainly middle-aged women. I pulled out a camisole I needed to sew as Cathi Hanauer took the stage.

Hanauer wittily recounted her first pregnancy and its trying aftermath: illness, a housekeeping-inept husband (current editor of the Times’ “Modern Love” column), lack of maternity leave. It sounded horrible. Hanauer said as much. Relating these troubles to her wider circle of friends at the time, she said, “we found that feminism had failed us. We needed wives.” The audience laughed. These struggles formed the basis for her first book, The Bitch in the House.

Now, Hanauer is happier (or getting there?), and she’s compiled a new collection of cohort anecdotes in The Bitch is Back.

I can’t relate to either of these books. And I found I couldn’t appreciate the excerpts’ relative flatness, either.

Lizzie Skurnick discussed being a single mom choosing a sperm donor. Skurnick is biracial, and wondered if she should choose a black father to preserve the “crucial percentage of blackness” in her DNA. What? Being able to choose the race of your child is an incredible privilege. I didn’t really get what she meant by this phrase.

DSpar read from her piece on beauty and aging that made waves in the Times last week. “Who am I to pass judgment on people’s Botox surgery?” DSpar asked. This is a good point. It follows the same rhetoric of slut-shaming: people, especially women, should be allowed to present themselves however they want, and we shouldn’t judge them for those choices. But DSpar gives a shallow analysis of why women (including herself!) get Botox in the first place. Her concern is with the embarrassment and taboo surrounding cosmetic surgery, and not the motives for the procedure. She fails to satisfyingly address whether women are doing it for others, or for themselves, and the implications.

Acclaimed author and Barnard professor Jennifer Finney Boylan was last to speak. Boylan is an outstanding writer, and her piece on being transgender resonated with me the most. She spoke candidly about hiding her identity for a very long time, in order to protect her wife and son.

When DSpar stood up to read, so did a large group of students dressed all in black. Throughout DSpar’s speech they stood silently, holding signs directed at her: “Black people are being murdered,” “Use your platform to represent us,” “Silence is violence.” DSpar kept reading, a smile plastered on her face.

I was infuriated that a silent demand to recognize issues important and relevant to students was met with annoyance, not concern.

The protest was never addressed. In the Q&A at the end, a student raised another point: authors in the Bitch books gripe about maternity leave, but at least their husbands have healthcare–something dozens of adjunct faculty at Barnard lack. Could DSpar say why?

No, she “would not answer the question right now, because this was Cathi’s event.”

Cathi quickly took the microphone and said, “Well, I can answer that–I asked Debora to write about appearance.”

Obviously, this didn’t answer the question, and it also brought back my earlier frustration. Appearance, among other things, may plague a certain portion of upper middle class, college educated, racially homogenous women–but the context in which DSpar wrote about it was not relevant to so many Barnard students. Maybe that’s why more people didn’t show up.

At the end of the Q&A, Hanauer expressed delight toward the young people in the audience. “We weren’t talking about this stuff when I was in college,” she said. What did she mean by that–appearance, mother-career balance, marriage? It’s sad to me that they’re talking about this stuff now, with so much else in the world to discuss. No offense, who really gives a damn about Botox, besides a 1% of the 1%? And though these women represent an incredibly small margin, their voices are heard far louder than many others’, making these topics seem relevant, important.

They aren’t. The evening completely ignored issues of intersectionality–struggles of single mothers who cannot, for example, choose the sperm donors of their children, or rely on their husbands’ healthcare. Women of color, women without jobs, women who have been denied access to resources and support systems.

Attending this panel, I was reminded of discussions in my Philosophy and Feminism course, taught by Christia Mercer. Mercer is an incredible professor who teaches about sex and gender with a refreshingly intersectional lens. She asks us to reassess how we know what we know, and why we believe what we believe–confronting women’s obsession with weight, makeup, appearance. Mercer mentioned DSpar’s Times column in class, noting how upset it made her that Botox was such a pressing issue for the president of Barnard College.

I forewent the book signing part of the event and trudged upstairs. In the lobby, groups of my smartly dressed classmates sipped Starbucks from Liz’s Place, laughing against the red walls and glass windows.

Outside, workers stood in the dark, hosing down the remains of Big Sub. Lone pieces of bread and roast beef dotted my path home. Forty-five minutes ago, there had been a feast.

As I slid through the cool night, my uneasy consternation lingered. DSpar, PrezBo, and others in power continue to fail to address pressing issues.

Though we certainly lack their platforms, this doesn’t mean we can’t stand up. The question is, how? Last year, students sat in Low, demanding fossil fuel divestment. Last night, students held a vigil for police brutality. There are meetings, talks, marches. We read, discuss, debate, acknowledge, apologize. But our methods seem less tangible than the protests of the ’60s, when students swarmed campus buildings and received positive responses to their demands. Is our failure due to lack of effort? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure what the best way is to effect change, either. At the very least, we can agree that DSpar’s column blows–and hope for something better.

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  1. Margaret Morrison

    Thank you for your excellent piece Sarah. As a Barnard alumna, class of '83, and current Adjunct Lecturer in the Barnard Dance Dept I also was deeply dismayed by the event. Your assessment is spot on. The student who spoke up at the Q&A, asking Spar pointedly about the lack of health coverage for adjunct faculty, was dismissed in a patronizing manner. Your voices ARE being heard. You can tell because those in power are pushing back with an old tactic, attempting to shame protesters into silence.

  2. Bob Lamm

    Excellent piece. I'm a proud "child of the '60s" and currently an adjunct at NYU. It's great that you raise these important issues. And it's great that students at Barnard are speaking out.

  3. Tomara  

    Excellent response. Just to add another bit of consternation over Barnard's lack of support of its employees, especially mothers, the school provides its Union workers 12 weeks (FMLA) of essentially unpaid maternity leave ($170 per week - before taxes). DSpar talks the talk when it comes to supporting women and families, but when it comes to actually supporting the lowest paid group on campus (other than adjuncts), she, and the school's policies, come up short.

  4. Anonymous  

    I since when does Bwog run op Eds? I agree with you though, minus Botox (I think it's unabashedly bad).

  5. Anonymous

    Remember when Bwog didn't have the insatiable desire to suck activist clit?

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