Archive for the ‘career’ Category

A week ago I finished a job as event coordinator for a large academic conference in Boston.  Although the organization bills itself as a “North American Society…” there were people in attendance from all over the world, and I — an undergraduate English major who studied romanticism quite a bit — was so far out of my league I wondered where my studies of Wordsworth and Shelley had gone.

I had four students acting as assistants for the conference. Three of them were graduate students, one was a rising senior, and all of them are headed for careers as college professors or researcher/writers in the field of romanticism.  They were terrific, each one of them in their own way, so smart and engaged and energetic.  The grad students were put on panels and so, received the opportunity to present a twelve minute paper on a subject they were studying, and to field the questions of the audience who wanted to explore their topic (or tear their thesis apart).  This was a wonderful opportunity for them, and when they weren’t helping at our registration desk or running around taking care of other errands, they were off in seminars, taking full advantage of the visiting professors who came from Australia, Ireland, across Canada, China, Denmark, and more.

Each one of these women is already impressive.  And each one of them is going to be something important, really significant, and soon.  You can see it in their drive, in their conversations with one another, in their eyes.  It made me not only remember my own days in graduate school, when I grabbed every opportunity I could get to work in professional theatre and dove deep into studies of Georg Buchner and the existentialist playwrights, days when I thought I would die of happiness just working for the eighteenth hour straight on Elizabeth Ashley’s new play, about to come into the Colonial Theatre, or work on a grad student production of Percey Shelley’s play “The Cenci” (talk about obscure romanticism).

Along the way I got a boost from some people (mostly women) that helped.  The costume designer and now business consultant Betsy Leichleiter, who sent me off to Boston’s theatre district to work because she thought I had the right stuff.  Theatre publicist Nance Movsessian, a warhorse of a woman who was legend in Boston theatre, who taught me about communication in an arts setting.  Roberta Rogovin in New Haven, who thought that I had what it would take to make the City of New Haven a place where the arts could not only survive, but thrive.  And then, as I branched away from theatre and the arts and toward other non-profit settings and the world of religion,  Denny Davidoff, an advertising and marketing powerhouse who, with former Unitarian Universalist Association Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, not only taught me about the business of religion but about how to make your career and your life focus on making a difference in the world.

These were my uncommon women, the people who were there to give me a hand along the way, sometimes a kick in the ass as well, and who pointed me toward the next challenge and the opportunities that lay ahead.  As one of my graduate assistants at that conference agonized over a professor who had torn into her thesis, I wondered if some mentor would be there to keep her headed in the right direction.  Soon enough, one of her professors (not a woman, but a mentor and advocate for sure) showed up to help her refocus on what was important.    “If you didn’t get questions about what you wrote, it wouldn’t be worth saying.  You’re doing fine.  Keep going.”  And my comment:  “Everyone I’ve talked to at this conference has talked about how wonderful you are as a teacher.  You told me you wanted to be an English professor.  You already are.  Your students value you.  Keep working toward the goal of being the best professor you can be, and you’ll be on the right path.”

This week I’ll be at a dinner, held by another ‘uncommon woman,’ one who has been an author, one of the first female Fulbright scholars, and a foreign bureau chief for a major news outlet.  She’ll gather with a number of other impressive women around her table and they’ll be talking about their lives, who they have mentored, whether they now mentor others.  It should be a heady conversation.

I have no idea if my life will put me in the place where I need to be lifted up, again, by one of my uncommon women.  But I know what the value is of such people in our lives.  So often they show up at just the right moment.  Knowing when to say something or give you a kick in the ass is part of the treasure that such mentors hold…part of what make them so uncommon.

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Hurricane Irene — which hit the Boston area as a weakened, but still formidable Tropical Storm Irene — has moved out of this area leaving plenty of downed tree limbs, relatively minor flooding, and a lot of people who are holding Hurricane Parties to amuse themselves.  One can only hope that those folks are staying off the roads and refraining from drinking and driving, so that public safety officials don’t have to clean up DUI accidents as well as storm debris.

While some people are wondering what all the fuss was about, Ben and I were remembering the last storm to focus on the New England coast with real fury:  Hurricane Bob, which occurred twenty years ago, nearly to the day.  Bob made landfall on August 19 and continued into August 20, 1991.  We were living across town at the time, and our then-ten year old daughter, Emily, hunkered down with us while we did a family craft project by candlelight, listening occasionally to the battery-operated radio.  Later, Ben brought our camp stove out on the porch, and I cooked supper, which we ate with candles.  We all went to bed early (which we tend to do when camping – how much can you do when nightfall comes early?) and awoke the next morning to find the power back on.  While there was certainly tree damage, we felt that – like today – we had escaped the worst of it.

We were, at the time (as we have been today) more worried about our beloved Isles of Shoals and our friends who worked on Star Island.  The island manager at the time, Tony Codding (having evacuated all the conferees) had the genius idea of putting the iconic island historian, Fred McGill, on the radio telephone to answer the calls of the nervous parents of the summer workers (called Pelicans) who wanted to make sure their children were safe.  Star survived that blow, as we trust it will do this one, and late-summer conference center life will shortly resume on Star for those who seek a retreat and escape from the bustle of the ‘real’ world.

More than Hurricane Bob or Irene, though, I remember Hurricane Gloria.  Gloria, which occurred in September, 1985, made three landfalls, one of them in Connecticut, where I was living at the time.  I resided in Stony Creek, a hamlet of Branford, on the shoreline.  Stony Creek was one of those remarkable places…a town that felt like it had pulled off the Maine coast and plunked down on Long Island Sound.  Old-timers hung out on the docks, making disparaging remarks about the young, monied folk who moved into town.  Things moved slowly, and a nightly routine for me involved walking down to the dock, fishing pole in hand, to catch a few baby blues as darkness fell while catching up with the local gossip.

When Gloria hit, I was working part time for radio station WELI in New Haven, hosting an arts and entertainment show and participating as a reporter in special coverage events from time to time.  I was asked to go out and report on the storm from Stony Creek – an interesting place for ‘color’ coverage, given its shoreline location and low-lying areas.  Standing outside with my portable broadcast unit (remember, there were no cell phones at the time) I heard a huge roar of wind and then a crack behind me.  I turned to see an enormous tree limb land about eighteen inches from where I stood.  That did it:  I talked to the studio producer and said that I thought it better to go inside to the volunteer fire station, which was doubling as an emergency shelter, rather than further risk life and limb with any more live reports.

Gloria did more than $900 million in damage, and plenty of it was in Connecticut.  Power went out in Stony Creek for five days and our radio station offered non-stop coverage on food safety and spoilage, what stores were open for supplies, gas stations with power in the area, and more.  Talk radio can be an important lifeline in such situations, and I was glad to have the chance to contribute to such an effort – although stunned to have nearly been killed in the storm due to my own stupidity.  Hurricane Gloria, along with the late October, 1991 no-name storm on which the book “The Perfect Storm” was based, will always stand out in my mind as the strongest hurricanes I’ve weathered.

I’ve always loved the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy ‘sees’ her life passing before her eyes as the tornado hits, including Miss Gulch pedaling by on her bicycle.  During the height of Hurricane Irene, as with other such storms, I looked to the sky, watching birds struggling to take flight against the sheer force of nature, marveling at what nature can unleash to chasten us.  I view it as Mother Nature issuing yet another reminder about who’s really in charge.

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I like to think that I’m pretty good at cooking, staging public events, connecting with young children, running projects large and small.  If you want a great fund raising activity or you need an intergenerational musical theatre event staged and directed, call me.  If you want to knock someone’s socks off with a great party, the legendary “Hostess With the Mostess,” Perle Mesta, lives on in my shoes.  However I think of myself as being less good at venturing into places I don’t know well, or doing things I’ve never ever done before.

Nevertheless, there I was a few weeks ago, getting ready to preach a sermon on what it has taken for me to  be comfortable going to a part of Boston that, in recent years, has been subject to crime and a middle class exodus to the suburbs.  It wasn’t the preaching that got me — I had plenty of experience with that.  It was talking about what it took to get me to do something both frightening and unfamiliar.  It required me to be honest with myself at a level that I don’t like to go to every day.

And I was, at the same time, leading a Coming of Age class for the third time in six years, loving every second that I spent with nineteen 15- and 16-year-olds, despite the fact that my relationship with my own teenager is a bit rocky (too) much of the time.

And now I have found myself trying new physical challenges:  like jumping into a Zumba class (a fusion of Latin and international dance and movement that gives you one heck of a cardio workout) despite the fact that I am a dance maven only in my mind and something of a klutz, with a bad right knee and lousy left foot.

It makes no sense, really.

Frequently when I’m in the middle of doing one of these new things I am hit by that feeling that I once heard psychologists describe as the “Cinderella syndrome,” that feeling that many women have, that someone will surely find out that I can not do the things I’m trying to pull offI will be found to be an imposter, and I will be thrown out of the palace…and the coach will turn back into a pumpkin.  Even so, I keep trying.  Not things that feel downright dangerous (you will not, for instance, find me bungee jumping, not ever) but yes, I will be lured to try things that feel like they would be good for me to attempt.

We live, most of us, in the comfort zone of our existence…doing the things that are familiar, and perhaps boring, because they have unrelenting sameness to speak for them.  These are the humdrum elements of our lives.  Going to another place can be terrifying, but it can also offer a journey of discovery.  While I don’t want too much in my life that is unfamiliar — routine and dependability offer a blessing and comfort — I’m trying to pick enough challenges to provide variety for the journey.

My husband and I have a little saying that we offer to one another when  we’ve done something unfamiliar that has come off well.  Not perfectly, perhaps, but well enough to provide a positive outcome and what feels like success.  “Fooled them again,” one of us will say to the other.  As if we’ve convinced folks that we really can pull off the impossible or the unfamiliar or untested.  Of course, the people we’ve really fooled are ourselves.  We didn’t let ourselves get stopped by the ‘what if’ or the ‘I don’t know how’ virus.  We tried to do what doesn’t come naturally, and found out that doing it wasn’t so bad after all.

Today, for me, it’s Zumba and operating my own business.  Tomorrow, for Ben, it will be driving to West Virginia, to an unfamiliar place, to offer his carpentry and contracting services to an economically challenged community, along with 25 of our congregation’s high school-aged youth.

Doing what doesn’t come naturally has its rewards.  And, at the end of the day, we might be able to say once more, “Fooled them again.”

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A few days ago, while sitting in the waiting room outside a doctor’s office, I picked up a ‘women’s’ magazine (Good Housekeeping) and started leafing through.  The magazine was celebrating 125 years of publication, and in one feature, they were recognizing the 125 “women who changed our world.”

I grew up in a rather paradoxical environment where the role of women was concerned.  My mother, who wanted to encourage me to be whatever I wanted to be, was also very protective.  I was not, for instance, allowed to attend American University in Washington, DC, because my mother deemed it ‘unsafe’ for me to be there.  Instead, I went to a nice “girl’s school,” Russell Sage College, in Troy, New York (the college is fine, the city, however, is not).  My mother, who worked as a teacher, occupational therapist, and dietician (the latter two unlicensed positions) felt, truth be told, that women were inferior and not nearly so interesting as men.  She was far more focused on talking to men at parties and gatherings than women, and although she was a terrific cook and a good housekeeper, she was determined to do something that she deemed important with her life.

Her work with Planned Parenthood and later, her very successful career as a real estate agent, brought her fulfillment, but she never shook off the pervasive sense that women weren’t usually worth paying attention to.

I grew up wanting to achieve, partly to show my parents that I could, and partly because I grew up in a time when women were being encouraged to believe that most anything might be possible.  Further, I married a man who comes from a family full of impressive women.  Ben’s mother, Phoebe Taber Hamilton Soule, went to Vassar and taught french at a private school until she became a full-time homemaker.  She traveled all over the world and worked actively for Habitat for Humanity.  I have called her “my sainted mother-in-law,” and she is high on my list of admired women not only for her kindness and generous heart, but because she pursued her education, taught, and traveled, at a time when many women were not doing these things.

Phoebe’s cousins once removed were very well known.  Edith Hamilton was an educator, and later a writer and mythologist — the author of “The Greek Way” and “The Roman Way,”  books still recognized in schools and libraries for teaching classical legend.  Her sister, Margaret, was also an educator, and Edith and Margaret were honored by Connecticut College with a building named after them.  Another sister, Norah Hamilton, was a lithographer and printmaker. And another sister, Dr. Alice Hamilton, was recognized in the Good Housekeeping issue I was leafing through:  she was the first doctor of environmental medicine and taught at Harvard — even though Harvard would not allow her to robe and sit on the dais for the annual graduation ceremonies.  Two other cousins, Jessie and Agnes Hamilton, were painters of some reknown, and Agnes was also a child welfare advocate.

In other words, they were all uncommon women.  All this set me to thinking about the women I admire.  When I was small, I had a favorite book which I read, over and over.  It was about courageous individuals and it included profiles of Jane Addams, Clara Barton, and Marie Curie.  I loved those stories and sought out other biographies of women.  Like many other young women, I read “The Diary of a Young Girl” over and over, swept up by Anne Frank’s beautiful prose and her wisdom, so beyond her years.  I was captivated by the story of Annie Sullivan as she taught young Helen Keller against seemingly insurmountable odds.  And as a young adult, I admired the bravery of Jacqueline Kennedy, the guts of Gloria Steinem, the stentorian speaking and brilliance of Rep. Barbara Jordan.

I loved watching Hillary Rodham Clinton run for the presidential nomination, although I believed then – as I do now – that she would have polarized the electorate had she been nominated.  And I am thrilled with the way in which Michelle Obama — a very successful woman — has assumed her roles, both as First Lady and “Mom in Chief,” for our country.  My own mentor and inspiration  is Denny Davidoff, a woman who started her own public relations and advertising agency, became Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a founder of the Interfaith Alliance and Interfaith Alliance Foundation, and is, simply put, a force of nature.  If I can be one-tenth of what she is, I will have done well.

OK, I still don’t like Sarah Palin, although I continue to be impressed by the numbers of women she’s marshalling to stand up for a cause they believe in.  But even Palin gets a tip of my virtual hat:  these women, past and present, continue to prove to all who might doubt it what a powerful force women are in influencing our culture, politics, history and lots of individual lives.

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If life had unfolded the way it has for the last twenty-three years, I would now be en route to the site of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, getting a crew of fifteen or so volunteers ready to report, blog, video record, produce podcasts, and photograph this annual conference.  But since I was laid off in March, things are different this year.

Mostly I’m finding that I don’t mind the thought of missing GA — at least, not too much.  I will be sorry to miss the presentation of the Association’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism to a good friend; I am sorry I won’t be on the plenary floor for what promises to be a really interesting debate on whether to move the 2012 General Assembly from Phoenix to another location.  And God knows, I will miss the friends and colleagues I’ve connected with all these years.

On the other hand, I don’t mind the break:  I have had a delightful spring, filled with planting my garden (and now, beginning to harvest), engaging in yoga at a level far deeper than before, re-connecting with friends, blogging (yes, this blog), and finding out what the rhythm of my life is like when it’s not driven by very demanding and pressing deadlines and complaints.  This sabbatical has been a real gift and I am grateful to my core.  I feel like I have gotten a part of my life back.

And this weekend will bring something else I haven’t had in four years:  a trip to the Isles of Shoals and Star Island, for a full week of vacation.  The last time my husband and I were able to attend a full week of the Star Island conference we are most connected to, was 2006.  Since then, the General Assembly schedule and the island conference schedule have not agreed, and Ben and I have had to send our daughter out to the island with friends, and content ourselves with a short half of a week in which to try and relax and rejuvenate.  Not this year.

So on Saturday morning, we’ll get on a boat with friends, bring a gourmet picnic with us, and get ready for a wonderful, music-filled week in the place I love best in all the world.  Ben and I met on Star when we were four years old, and we have raised our children on this island as well.  Our daughter, Emily, has worked on Star for many summers, as Ben and I did when we were young adults.  Our daughter, Abby, looks forward to the time – in just a couple of years — when she, too, will be old enough to join the summer staff and experience Star from the ‘inside,’ for a whole summer.  We have to content ourselves with this one precious week, and a long weekend or two through the rest of the summer and fall.

Much has been written about Star Island, by famous writers and poets, and ‘just folks’ who fall in love with the place.  For me, there is something remarkable that happens about ten minutes after the boat I’m on leaves the harbor headed for Star:  the mainland releases its grasp, the news headlines and concerns of the world fade away.  The cold, crisp air fills my lungs.  My hair gets tangled in the wind, the salt spray mists my clothes.  And I realize that I am there, in the now, on the sea, and it is all that I care about.  Docking at Star, I walk up the path to the old hotel, past the flowers and the flagpole that I see with the eyes of the child I was…it is all the same now as it was then.  The bell on the long piazza rings to announce events of the day, the voices of children and adults drift in and out on the breeze, there are no cars or TV’s or billboards.  And, seated in a rocking chair or on the rocks themselves, I look out.  Across Gosport Harbor, I watch the sailboats slip in and out of port, the rowboats moving as folks explore the coves of Smuttynose Island across the way. Life has slowed like heartbeats that calm after a half-hour of meditation.

I want no more than a Lime Rickey, a conversation with Ben or a friend I’ve known since childhood, back on the island with their family as am I.  Life moves at a completely different pace here.  It is all very, very simple and very, very good.

This is Island Mind…a time to reclaim the calm and peace and beauty that lives mostly in our imaginations, but too rarely in reality.  Others find this bliss in different places:  mountain tops, canyons at sunset, fishing on a placid lake.  For me, Star is the place.  I yearn for my island mind, which sits, somewhere inside me, waiting for its release.  And I will, once more, be carried away.

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Looking for more about food?  Visit Deb Weiner’s catering company — named, of course, The Delicious Dish!

Years ago, in Connecticut, I went through a period where I was underemployed.  In addition to being a radio talk show host and a freelance arts fundraising consultant and events producer, I decided to diversify.  First, I started working with friends who had opened a flower shop in New Haven.  I had always had a flair and a passion for flower arranging, and here were friends who needed help.  I learned about the proper way to cut stems, take the ‘work leaves’ off roses, names of things like lisianthus and tuberose and bear grass.  I made lovely arrangements and bouquets for folks;  I had a great time.

Then I decided to branch out a little more.  Another friend was starting a catering business out of her little gourmet store.  She needed some extra help, so I came in and started making things.  First, buckets of fruit salad and fruit skewers.  Then, palmiers, chicken almond salad, wild rice salads, cookies, and then some of my own ideas.  It was fun — but not all the time.  We started doing events.  I enjoyed making the harvest table displays out of veggies and dips and fruits, and the charcuterie and cheese tables, featuring different kinds of baked bries and more pates than I had ever known of before.  But fighting the drunk party-goers who positioned themselves right outside the kitchen door at a party so that they could snatch handfulls (I am not kidding) of hot hors d’oeuvres — not so much.

The most challenging gig was a wedding reception which took place at a home, on a wickedly hot and humid Connecticut day in August. Not only was there no air conditioning, the kitchen was about the size of a postage stamp…and there were about fifteen stairs going down out of the kitchen to get to the yard where the wedding reception was taking place.  Back and forth the wait staff went, schlepping trays of hors d’oeuvres and bowls of salads and grilled tenderloins.  The mother of the bride wouldn’t stay out of the kitchen, the circuits blew from our convection ovens, and it was so hot that the small chocolate mousse balls we had on plates as a ‘before the cake is cut’ treat, melted in the heat.  I remember coming home, where the air conditioners were blasting, and dropping one item of sweaty clothing after another, as I walked like a zombie toward the shower…where I stayed for a very long time.

Still, it was fun to produce good food that people enjoyed, and so I kept it up.  After I moved to Massachusetts, I would do occasional gigs for friends, or to pick up a little extra money at holiday or vacation time, and I took to ‘selling myself’ at our annual church auction — for a respectable fee, of course. I didn’t have a name for my little company, though, until I saw the Saturday Night Live skit about the two NPR reporters who have a food show.  This was the famous interview with Alec Baldwin as Pete Schweddy which had me on the floor crying with laughter.  That was it:  I would call my company “The Delicious Dish,” the name of the NPR show in the skit.

Since The Delicious Dish has started, I’ve done a number of engagements over the years, and I continue today.  I’ve catered parties for 100, cocktail parties for 20, surprise birthday events, and more.  They’re fun, creative, and a great way for me to share some of the recipes I’ve developed with others.  Some of you have read my rant about bad food, cheap.  What I enjoy is making good food, at reasonable prices, knowing that others appreciate it.

I view catering as part of my portfolio of other interests…it’s not the main thing that I do, but something I enjoy, that uses my creativity, and that I do pretty darned well.  When the local produce comes in and my garden starts to ramp up, I start thinking:  what could I make out of that item that people would enjoy?  So if you have an event coming up, you might want to make a date with The Delicious Dish.  I hear she’s great at a party!

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The news cycles have been filled with debates about feminism in recent days.  What is a feminist?  Does Sarah Palin qualify?  How about Carly Fiorina?  Is there a glass ceiling any more?  What are women fighting for?  On and on go the discussions.

At the risk of putting myself into a niche, let me say that I came of age after “The Feminine Mystique” had been published, and was always led to believe that I could pretty much be anything I wanted to be.  On the other hand, I had the misfortune of finding that, during my first  job with the Hartford Stage Company, I was groped by a jerk who I had stopped to ask directions from, and dismissed by an arrogant middle-aged managing director who was overheard to say, “I don’t want any stupid little girls working for me.”  So much for entry-level positions and on the job learning experiences.

I have worked hard to achieve goals throughout my career and have been rewarded by awards and promotions.  I have never felt the need to join the chorus of women who are angry at men for the perceived advantages they have in the job market or the world — I found that the doors I wanted to walk through were open to me.  And since becoming a mother, I’ve tried to instill in my daughters the belief that the world is similarly open to them and that, if they work hard, stay focused, and are motivated, anything is possible.

So over the last eighteen months I’ve been somewhat mystified as I watch Sarah Palin and the many reactions she stirs up.  On the one hand, Palin’s politics and conservatism apall me.  Sometimes I can not believe what comes out of her mouth, nor can I believe how stupid her handlers and communication consultants have been in preparing her for public remarks or photo shots (who can forget the interview in front of the turkey slaughtering operation just before Thanksgiving?)  On the other hand, she and her operatives have been very smart in picking political races and locations for her to show up for.  She’s been speaking before crowds who are excited to see her, and like ’em or not, she’s endorsed some winners.  I have to believe that her appearances and endorsements are going to help provide the basis for another political run in the near future.

Palin sure isn’t my kind of feminist, but I wouldn’t ever exclude her from wearing that label.  She’s worked hard to develop her career while parenting her children, and like her or not, she’s certainly helped elevate the visibility of women in politics.  Then there’s the politicians in California.  Meg Whitman, who will run for Governor against the ubiquitous Jerry Brown, has reportedly sunk more than $60 million of her own fortune into the campaign — earnings that came from her founding and development of the online auction site eBay.  While there have been complaints about how much money Whitman has spent (I gasp to think of how many people could have received health care for that money, or how much economic subsidy could have gone to unemployed fishermen and women on the Gulf Coast, for instance) the fact is, she worked hard to earn it, and it’s her right to spend it as she chooses.  And more power to her.

I have more trouble with Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who will face off against Barbara Boxer for Senator from California, who lately looks like a catty doofus.  Ms. Fiorina, who dropped $8 million or so in her primary battle, joins the “please send the communication consultants over” club, for having sat there prior to a TV interview while she offered opinions on Boxer’s hair and other big topics through an open mic.  Please, could you do a little better than this as you move through your campaign appearances, Ms. Fiorina?

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Palin and Whitman, and even Fiorina, get to wear the feminist label, even if we don’t like their politics.  Feminism does not require a liberal political position — it’s about making change in political, economic, and social arenas that establish greater rights and protections for women.  And while it’s true that some of these candidates hold social positions that are counter to women’s legal and social rights (the fact that they are opposed to reproductive choice, most notably) they are out there and, by their commitment to advancing the status of women, I believe they share something with feminists of many ages, including Hillary Clinton, Alice Walker,  Abigail Adams, Emma Goldman, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

I’m not saying I like what I’m seeing.  These women don’t offer up the social values that I want my daughters to see and embrace.  But I do want my daughters – and yours – to know that they can run for high office if they want, or start a company that transforms our understanding of how things are bought and sold online, or run a major international corporation.  Just don’t spend time talking about your opponent’s hair or tweeting about Mama Grizzlies and pit bulls with lipstick.

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