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Finished A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom. This book describes the history of marriage as it relates to modern marriage in America. The lives of wives in the ancient world are examined by looking at wives in the Bible, Greek wives, and Roman wives. Yalom then marches on through history, examining Medieval Europe, early Protestant wives, republican wives in America and France, Victorian wives in England and the U.S. (including those on the frontier). She then gets into the more modern era and looks at the changing role of women and wives in the late 19th century and the history of issues such as sex, contraception, and abortion in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Finally, she looks at wives in WWII and briefly examines how the role of the wife has changed in the last 50 years.

The common theme of this book is that what it means to be a wife is always changing with time and with culture. The so-called traditional nuclear family of a mother homemaker, a father breadwinner, and a couple of children is actually no more common than many other modes of family life. Throughout history, there have been times and places where both parents have worked, where children were sent elsewhere once they reached a certain ages, and where the household was much more diverse (extended family, servants, apprentices, etc.). Sometimes women were assumed to be more full of sexual desires than men and sometimes women were assumed to be frigid towers of purity.

Marriage can be an economic relationship, a political relationship, or a emotional relationship. These days, we think that it should be primarily an emotional relationship, but throughout much of history, that idea was ridiculous; marriage was a way to solidify political ties or increase your economic worth. Over time, love became an important factor in choosing a spouse, but it is only recently (since women started becoming more independent, in fact) that love and personality became the primary factors when choosing a spouse.

Yalom also makes the point that what seem like modern issues about sex, contraception, and abortion actually have histories going back hundreds of years (and a public history going back about 150 years). The unequal sexual freedoms accepted for men and women have been the issue of private discussion many centuries, and women have always shared the secrets of contraception and medicinally induced abortions since at least the middle ages. Ancient cultures practiced infanticide, and while it was never approved, there were times when it was certainly ignored. What changed in the last 150 years is that this discussion has become public.

In short, the role of the wife is constantly evolving (as are the closely related issues of the husband, children, and sex). Acknowledging this is important; it shows the error in thinking that marriage is now corrupted and ruined and that marriages of the past fit some idealized perfect mold. Marriage has always been changing; marriages may be less stable today, but beating ones wife and children is no longer acceptable. It is neither going downhill nor approaching some ideal; like all human institutions, it is just changing in response to the world around it and will continue to do so.
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ABC has a story about an upcoming documentary on some of the very first computer programmers. The documentary is "Invisible Computers: The Untold Story of the ENIAC Programmers" (more info here) and is about the 6 women who helped to program the ENIAC during World War II. Somehow, we had forgotten about these women. Hurrah for rediscovering them!
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I have been reading The Feminine Mystique and, thus far, it is inspiring me to conclude that the image of femininity and motherhood pushed onto the American public in the late 1940's and the 1950's did just as much harm to the idea of a stay-at-home parent as the push for women to have full-time careers. A mother of that period was seen as abnormal if she wanted to be anything more than a stay-at-home mother and wife. This is more than criticizing women who wanted to have a career. Women were portrayed by the media as having no interests outside of their home and family except, perhaps, a not too active role in the church or PTA. Women were not expected to be interested in (or even have the capacity to be interested in) politics, art, economics, science, or anything that could not be related directly to the home and children.

This sort of attitude would make anyone hate the home. It would make anyone hate whatever it was they did. Suppose society expected you to have no interests outside of your job. No hobbies, no interest in family, no interest in social causes, no interest in politics. Imagine if you were expected to find total and complete fulfillment doing your job and only your job. I would guess that most people, even if they loved their job to start, would eventually come to hate it and to see it as a trap. I suspect that most people would also have the same misconception as modern society and blame the job rather than the unrealistic attitudes that surround it.

Because of the mid-century attitudes towards the role of women, the idea of being a stay-at-home parent has been marred in ways that are only now starting to be mended. Because staying at home did not keep the unreasonable promise of being all fulfilling, it has been seen as unfulfilling. I believe that things are improving now. Thanks, in part, to time showing that this extreme is as damaging as the other.

Another other important change has been the weakening of the idea that a stay-at-home parent can have no interests outside the home. The Internet plays an important, certainly not exclusive, role in this change. It seems that I regularly see bloggers, both male and female (mostly male because of the separate issue of gender imbalances in the blogging community, but that's a separate discussion) saying that, assuming their family can make it work financially, they want to stay at home with their children. They discuss the importance of their family and, just as importantly, the ways that their online network allows them to stay engaged with the world.

There are still many issues. How do we restructure the expectations of businesses for families where neither partner wants to stay at home full time? Or for families where no employee wants to be a slave to the office, even if one partner does stay at home? How do we change expectations so that women do not feel guilty whether they choose to stay at home or have a career? How do we change expectations so that a stay-at-home dad (or a male daycare worker) are not looked at as suspect? How do we achieve world peace with taffy and pudding for all?

Much needs to change, yet progress is being made.
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This month, O'Reilly is having a series of essays by women in technology. Today's essay is by Maria Klawe, mathematician, computer scientist, and president of Harvey Mudd College. Klawe's essay is about the change that has happened over the last 50 years for women in technology. The essay is mostly optimistic. However, there are two areas where progress has been disappointing: computer science participation and leadership positions. I would start quoting the key bits, but I cannot choose just one (or two or three) paragraphs. Usually, it seems these kinds of essays ignore the progress or ignore the problems. This essay manages to address both. Read it!
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Apparently, a study found that an angry woman in the workplace is judged much more negatively than an angry man. These days, discrimination against women is, for the most part, not explicit (despite the fact that one of my co-workers today expressed the opinion that it should be okay to not hire someone if they have an employment gap or say they want to have children). The discrimination is more subtle but more deeply ingrained. Men and women alike hold different attitudes towards a person based on a that person's gender.

So now what do we do? Our challenge will, in some ways, take more effort than those of the past. This problem cannot be solved with laws, and I do not think that it will be solved by time alone. What can we do, what can we actively do, to decrease the gender bias that both women and men when evaluating others? How can we change things so that anger is not seen as something assertive in men and unstable in women? How do you get rid of biases that you yourself subconsciously hold?
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Finished She's Such a Geek: Women Write about Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff edited by Analee Newitz and Charlie Anders. This book is a collection of essays on women about what it is like to be a female nerd. The essays provide a view in the the huge number of ways one can be a geeky woman.

Some of the women are still working with science and technology, some have stopped, some never have (actually, a lot of them are now writers, but that, I would guess, is a sampling bias). Some of the women embraced their nerdiness from a young age, some denied it for a period, and some of them rejected their nerdiness for awhile. All of the women in this book love their particular brand of geekiness.

There are, I think, two main themes of the essays as a whole. The first is that we girl geeks exist (and are pretty awesome!). The second theme is how women cope with the societal conflict between being feminine and being a geek. Some of the girl geeks reconciled this by denying their femininity. Others divided their lives into the sphere where they were feminine and the sphere where they were geeky. Others decided that they could be both, expectations be damned.

I highly recommend this book.
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We have not yet reached gender equality in this country, but what we have left to do pales in comparison to the situation of women in Iraq. It makes me so sad.
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I am not going to say anything about this except to comment on a quote from the end of this article:
Whelan, an abortion opponent, said ... "It would seem to me that their religious faith was irrelevant."
Come now, let's be honest with ourselves.

Edited to leave only the relevant part of the comment. The only point I was trying to make is that it is silly to claim that the religigious beliefs of the judges is irrelevant. The judges are certainly trained to make the beliefs less directly relevant to their decision, but the fundamental beliefs of a person are never irrelevant to any decision that they make.
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The Wall Street Journal had an interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. Hewlett was discussing the question of why there are not more women in the high power positions in companies. One section in particular caught my eye.
WSJ: How would you describe a nonlinear female career?

MS. HEWLETT: About 37% of women take an off-ramp at some point in their career, meaning they quit their jobs -- but just for an average 2.2 years. Another substantial number take scenic routes for a while -- intentionally not ratcheting up their assignments. For instance, 36% of highly qualified women have sought part-time jobs for some period, while others have declined promotions or deliberately chosen jobs with fewer responsibilities.

WSJ: Can women who off-ramp get back on track easily?

MS. HEWLETT: That's the problem. The vast majority of them -- 93% -- want to return to work, for financial reasons and because they like their careers. But once a woman stops working for even a year or two, opportunities to re-enter are few and far between. Just 73% land jobs, and 24% of these end up having to take part-time jobs.
I would guess similar issues apply for men who choose to take a career break.

As a person who will either take a career break or have a spouse who will take a career break, I find this worrisome. It would be interesting to see studies on why these women have such a difficult time getting back into their careers.
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A mailing list I am on has been discussing the harassment of Kathy Siera (one of the many articles on this for those of you not familiar with the topic).

Someone posted the question "What can we do?". Here is my response:
One thing we can do is to cut off such behavior on our own blogs. When we see comments that are violent and abusive, delete them. If someone keeps posting such things, ban them. They may come back under a different name, but eventually they will get tired of us.

The limits of acceptable behavior should be stated as clearly as possible in a comment policy for the blog. We do not want to hamper discourse, seem arbitrary, or be accused of restricting free speech. However, a commenter on your blog is a guest, and it is appropriate to set out acceptable standards of behavior.

In my opinion, one reason many online discussions turn into pools of competing threats and insults is that the medium does not convey the silent disgust of the majority that is more effective at silencing trolls and creeps than responding to their spew of hatred. Do not let them speak, and they will leave. If we work hard enough, they will eventually have no where to go.
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Now, you can never completely trust media coverage, but according to an MSNBC article on a study about the behavioral affects of day care the study defined child care as "care by anyone other than the child’s mother who was regularly scheduled for at least 10 hours per week". The key word in there being "mother". Excuse me? Even if it would only make a small difference in the number of children counted as in child care, that definition should read "parents" or "mother or father" or even, if we really want to be general "legal guardians".
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The 2006 Turing award winner and first woman Turing award winner is Emeritus IBM Fellow Fran Allen for her work on compiler optimizations. More information can be found here and here. Hurrah for her!
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Some interesting thoughts on girls and technology. It's a short read. The even shorter summary is that women, especially young women, are often painted as being victimized by new technology, and this could be interpreted as way to disempower women who want to use technology. I find this very interesting. Not because I necessarily think it's true, I have no data to persuade me either way at the moment, but because I think that asymmetries in treatment, whether they be based around gender or other factors, are always worth looking into. There may be a legitimate reason for the asymmetry (maybe women really are significant targets with new technologies), but the asymmetry may also just be a way to influence thinking.

To go off on a tangent... it is like my dislike of the phrase "man and wife". Why not "man and women" or, if the married nature of the couple is important, "husband and wife" (the choices expand even more when, horror of horrors! you allow switching the order of the conjuncts)? In this case, the asymmetry is trying to define the rolls of those referred to. A man, even a married man, is still a man in all the generality of that word. A married woman is just a wife. I wonder, going even more off track, whether it is a strange fact of modern life that women are free to be women instead of a wife, mother, daughter, widow, etc.

That was particularly random. Anywho, back to work.
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I had a profound revelation this morning. My bra is more comfortable if I wear it inside out. Now that I have discovered this, it makes perfect sense. The tag is on the inside, as are the seam endings for where the straps connect and where the underwire ends. The only part that that is less comfortable is that the shoulder adjustment doodads are now pressing into my shoulder. Overall, net improvement!
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Occassionaly I will follow a link trail to a blog for stay at home wives. Other times I will follow the link trail to a blog for working women. Why is it that, to varying degrees, nearly all of these blogs seem to look down upon people who make the opposite decision? Oftentime it is subtle, but other times it is blatant, and it always bugs me.
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Here are a couple random links: an amusing and brief history of shaving and a really interesting Wired article on internet distribution and the long tail of entertainment preferences.
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Articles like this always make me think a bit about marriage and its purpose and what not. I know why I am getting married, but these articles make me realize that that is about all I know.

EDIT: And one more article for the day. Motherhood this time.
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Women, working, and equality. I have some relevant thoughts if I have time to write them up later, but for now I just want to say one thing. Where did they get their example woman? I do not ever want to regularly work 70 hours per week, and that has nothing to do with ever wanting or not wanting children.

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Erika RS

May 2012

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