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.  

Greider was doing the laundry before spin class when she got the early morning Nobel call and later that day made sure her two young children joined her for pictures at the Hopkins press conference.  When I first interviewed pioneering women scientists in the 1970s, some archly declined to talk about their lives as women scientists, preferring instead to be gender-neutral scientists whose private lives were just that. A lack of role models and the fear of not having a "normal" family kept me from going into biology myself, but these modern women scientists demonstrate how it can be done.  

Like them, I have always relied on a sisterhood of close family, friends and colleagues of all ages. In 1988, I appeared on the PBS public affairs journalism show "Washington Week in Review," hosted by the late Paul Duke and produced by Sue Ducat, when for the first time all four panelists were women. New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, Wall Street Journal White House and political correspondent  Ellen Hume and I (then a Washington Post science/medical reporter) were contemporaries. But for me, the real star of the show was nationally syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, who had led the way in her pioneering work covering foreign affairs in a man's world. Today, of course, journalist Gwen Ifill hosts the show, and female panelists are a commonplace there and elsewhere.

"FINALLY! I hear we're all living in a woman's world now," Lipman noted ironically in "The Mismeasure of Woman." Yes, as the Shriver Report touts, for the first time women make up half the work force, and mothers are the major breadwinners in 40 percent of families. But Lipman warns that measuring the progress of women by the numbers can be misleading.

Lipman sheepishly admitted that she and her friends, as 1980s college students, grossly miscalculated just where women stood then. They "looked derisively at the women's liberation movement" and avoided the word "feminism" because they smugly thought themselves the equals of men and beyond gender concerns. Now, despite her own accomplishments as a former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and the founding editor of Conde Nast's recently folded Portfolio magazine, she worries that "somewhere along the line, especially in recent years, progress for women has stalled. And attitudes have taken a giant leap backward."

Perhaps it's time to realize that achieving "equality" is an elusive goal. We are indeed making immense progress in women's rights and opportunities, but the goal posts keep moving. They always will--and should. In fact, for most women, real progress is in the journey, not the destination, in the experience of becoming a successful woman, regardless of your own definition of what constitutes success. It's an ongoing, complicated conversation.

In the end, Lipman's practical advice to women boils down to three pointers: help girls develop confidence in themselves and a willingness to take risks ("to not always feel the need to be the passive 'good girl'); cultivate a good sense of humor; and don't be afraid to be a girl. "Women do have a different culture from men. And that can give us tremendous advantages," she said. Collins, 63, now a Times Op-Ed columnist, takes a similar approach in her book, managing, as Blow said of Michelle Obama, "to be both fun and serious simultaneously."

In the Obama household, the 45-year-old First Lady and Harvard-trained lawyer demonstrates the ability to be comfortable in her own skin, to be a professional woman, wife and mother who isn't afraid to speak out on important issues, become a fashion icon, or explore her inner child (by the way, she reportedly had some trouble with Double Dutch and was far better at hula hooping). I can't imagine serious professional women of an earlier hula hooping in public (we were so serious!).

Of course, girls, and the women they become, don't go it alone. There have always been men who have mentored, hired, promoted and supported women professionally and personally. My husband, long a strong supporter of women, now says that true equality will come when the husband takes the kids to the doctor (he didn't). The First Parents are both helping their two high-spirited young daughters fit into the Washington pressure cooker, but given his monumental duties it's still mom Michelle and her mother Marian who obviously have to put in the extra time (as did my mother and I).

The Obama girls will grow up as young women in the White House with unlimited opportunities--but high expectations--ahead of them. But I'm wondering if the games the Obama family plays will change in the years to come.  Will Barack join Michelle, Malia and Sasha in a turn at Double Dutch?  Or will the girls challenge him to a round of hoops at the White House basketball court (which has already come under scrutiny as a male bastion)?  

As for myself, I'm thinking of challenging my all-male family--my husband and two adult sons--to some Double Dutch.  I'm sure they're game, but first I have to teach them the ropes. Of course, I can always call my sisters for an instant replay.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Glamour Schatz


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Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and consultant to the documentary Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare. More

Russell is a Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor on science and the media. Russell was a national science reporter for The Washington Post and The Washington Star and appeared on PBS' Washington Week in Review. She serves on the boards of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Commonwealth Fund and Mills College and is on the selection committee for the National Academies of Science Communication Awards. She was a 2006 fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Russell is an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, and has a biology degree from Mills College.

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