Girls, Women and Double Dutch

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double dutch 2.JPGI remember jumping Double Dutch on the sidewalk outside my house in West Covina, CA, with my best friend Chrissie Mallon and my middle sister Shelly, while my youngest sister Diane sat on the grass watching. I was in junior high, young enough to still enjoy playing outside in our suburban southern California neighborhood and old enough to care whether I did well in front of my younger sisters.

Although Double Dutch has been elevated to a competitive sport in some places, for generations of girls it has been a pick-up game that combines skill, fun and friendship. The timing has to be just right. The rope handlers practice a bit to get the two ropes in sync, egg-beater style, while the jumper concentrates on finding the right moment to dash into the rope spotlight. Then it is jump! jump! jump! your heart pumping to the rhythmic sound of feet and ropes hitting the ground or the chanting song that helps you keep time. Double Dutch is a game of teamwork: if anyone messes up, the ropes come tumbling down, sometimes resulting in a skinned knee or at least a bit of wounded ego.

I really hadn't given this childhood game much thought until I read about Michelle Obama kicking off her shoes and trying a turn at Double Dutch on the White House South Lawn last week as part of a campaign to promote more physical activity and healthy eating in kids. A Saturday New York Times column by Charles M. Blow on "The Magic of Michelle" hailed her game attempt at jumping rope as further evidence of the First Lady's singular ability "to be both fun and serious simultaneously"--characteristics contributing to her immense popularity. Juxtaposed alongside the Obama column, by purpose or happenstance, was a lengthy, personal essay on "The Mismeasure of Woman" by journalist Joanne Lipman reflecting more broadly on the mixed progress of American women in recent decades.

And then, of course, there is When Everything Changed:  The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, the new book by Gail Collins, who blazed her own trail as the first female editorial page editor of the New York Times. Not to mention the "Shriver Report, A Woman's Nation Changes Everything," a portrait of every-woman by First Lady of California Maria Shriver and the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress.

With all this wallowing about women going on, it's an irresistible opportunity for feminist baby-boomers to take stock of how far we've come--and far we still have to go.

In an era in which women are ascending in increasing numbers to the Supreme Court, congressional leadership, governorships, Ivy League presidencies and Nobel Prizes in science, we can justifiably feel proud.  But then again, it is a time in which the popular media still objectify women as babes or ball-busters, in which movies eschew strong female leading roles (unless they are dead women aviators or Queens), and magazine covers still favor tall blondes.  

Growing up in the 1950s, entering a woman's college in the late 1960s, and jumping into daily journalism in Washington DC in the mid-1970s, I too have witnessed historic changes and experienced my own mix of support and sexism along the way. The stereotypical June Cleaver/Betty Crocker image of the perfect mid-20th century housewife--recently resurrected in television's Betty Draper on the popular "Mad Men" series--has slowly morphed into the sometimes harried professional woman of the early 21st century who is trying to balance her briefcase, shopping bag (reusable canvas of course), checkbook, and children's schedules.

The voyage for each girl and woman is always different. But for each generation there have been common experiences and female camaraderie that have helped make the journey easier. The tricks to playing Double Dutch are passed down, and in learning the ropes and jumping through them we have relied upon teamwork and guidance from those who came before us.

When Judge Sonia Sotomayor was undergoing Senate hearings in her journey to become the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, she knew that she could call upon Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg for help. I was surprised that Sotomayor also cited her childhood admiration for the bold, intelligent fictional teenage detective Nancy Drew (who was also cute, drove a cool blue roadster and had her dad Carson and boyfriend Ned at her beck and call). Drew is said to have also influenced a slew of other prominent women, including Justice Ginsburg, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former First Lady Laura Bush. I'm part of their old girl's club: the summer before fifth grade I set a goal of reading one Nancy Drew mystery each day, borrowed from my older next-door neighbor's trunk, before going out to play. Go Nancy.

When two women won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine earlier this month, they were rightly recognized for groundbreaking scientific contributions in cell biology that had major implications for cancer and aging. But Johns Hopkins professor Carol Greider and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, of the University of California, San Francisco, were also happy to talk about their intertwined lives as women scientists. Greider, who trained at Berkeley under Blackburn in the early 1980s, readily acknowledged an inclination of women in science to sometimes gravitate to other women scientists. But she also noted Blackburn was first trained by a distinguished male scientist at Yale who encouraged women in science.  

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Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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