Anna Quindlen doesn’t own an iron. By choice. Apparently, she deems that tidbit relevant to the lives and often-unimaginable struggles of the women and children who benefit from the fabulous work of Women In Need. Why else would she have worked it into her keynote remarks at WIN’s annual major fund-raiser last week? Among her other points: Nursing is again a respectable profession for women; her daughter once asked if men were allowed to be Secretary of State, and what woman would want to be Pope anyway?
Quindlen voiced occasional enlightened tolerance for the ways of prior generations of women. “My mother fed her babies food from jars while I made my own,” she said, adding that her prefeminist mom didn’t have the luxury of ordering in for the older set. I relate — sort of. My mother fed her eight children from jars. I fed my one child from jars, guilt-free. I feed myself from jars; I don’t cook, which has nothing to do with career options and everything to do with not cooking. (I recommend Mario Batali’s Arrabiata sauce. FreshDirect brings it right to your door.)
Quindlen may not fancy the Vatican, but the lady doth pontificate. Defying, though not disproving, the notion of brevity as the soul of wit, she blew on for days while managing to speak very little about WIN and the people it serves. She did sound aggressively proud of white-collar women, applauding victories long won while still listing woes. Conversely, Diane Sawyer, the epitome of elegance, kept her remarks brief, on point and personal, referring with gentle, conversational specificity to the trio of WIN children who appeared onstage.
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In many areas around the world, women and girls face horrific prejudice and, often, physical danger merely because of their gender. In the United States, more women, many of them mothers, live in poverty than men. Experts far more entrenched in the struggles and statistics will no doubt argue that those issues are connected with the (ever-dwindling) inequities faced by women in the white-collar world. On average, women still make less than men; as Quindlen pointed out, women are underrepresented on corporate boards and hold but three seats on the Supreme Court.
Take those concerns to Kara, a WIN client who addressed the benefit crowd. As a child, Kara experienced abandonment by her beloved father and sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend. Sick of the abuse, she left home at 12, was pregnant at 14 and lost her twins after a severe beating from her boyfriend. Seventeen, pregnant again and fearful for that baby, she left the boyfriend and met and married a man with four children; they had her baby and, later, three more together. Kara loved her family but started taking painkillers; her husband got arrested, and she took up stealing to support her habit. She considers her own arrest lifesaving; she got clean in prison. She got out, got her kids back, found her way to Women In Need, now works in graphic design and is saving her “move-out money.”
Kara is a few years older than my daughter and her school friends (NYC private-school system and college), some wealthy, some comfortably white collar, one young man an up-from-the-bootstraps former Prep for Prep kid, all privileged by access to education. Kara is also in the age range of numerous young colleagues of mine, from mid-20s to early 30s. These people — co-workers, my daughter, her friends — are building careers, which at times induces anxiety. But the worry about whether to leave editorial for business or law school is a different worry than being 30, unemployed, postprison, post-rehab, wondering where you and your adolescent children will sleep, and if the people working at the shelter will treat you like human beings.
That Quindlen determined to squash peaches into baby mush while building her dazzling Pulitzer Prize-winning career has nothing to do with the less genteel concerns of WIN clients. To put the two in the same conversation sounds absurd and unkind, no better than if a WIN client voiced despair over the cost of groceries and a well-employed woman responded, “I know what you mean. I can’t believe the price of Manolos these days.”
When Quindlen connected her dots back to the residents of WIN’s shelters, she did so in the context of what “we” privileged women should do for other women, as if addressing a feminist auxiliary group. Then, her focus was on the wrong side of the equation: Ascending the ladder, many found “that we missed that sense of doing well by doing good.” Better get on that one. Still, “women have done much, much more than their fair share.”
Take that, you other half of the coed audience. Whatever their usual irresponsible slacker tendencies, for WIN, men did their part, certainly on the financial side. (Some made for charming dinner partners, too.) For the fund-raising balloon contest, both men and women anted up; David Lipman and Sean Avery (I sat between them) each bought multiple balloons. Elsewhere, Bill McComb’s generosity made table 29 the winner. McComb also donated the Kate Spade goody-bag satchels ($200 each), after buying a $50,000 table. Then there was Steve Sadove. Honored by WIN five years ago, Sadove embraced the organization for the long term. Along with his wife Karin, now a board member, Sadove is a major and consistent donor, the couple’s $25,000 balloon challenge only an indication of their support.
Quindlen didn’t acknowledge that there were men in the room, much less some of the generous, genuinely concerned persuasion. One could call that impolite. Or sexist.