The Maybes of Parity
Yesterday, in an effort to conquer a melancholy mood and get a break from the endless toddler demands for my attention, I went to the gym and hopped on one of the fancy elliptical machines with an attached tv. In the course of my work out, I happened to see an interview with Marie C. Wilson on CNN. Wilson was president of the Ms. Foundation for Women and more recently founded The White House Project, an organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership in all sectors of American society.
At some point during the interview I was struck by an assertion Wilson made, that adding women to leadership within cultural institutions, businesses and politics would change the foundation of our society…that it would change everything. Generally assertions such as these make me uncomfortable. They make me uncomfortable because behind them lies the sticky ideology of gender essentialism; that somehow, somewhere inherent in women’s nature are kinder, gentler, more moral beings. Although it is a nice ego-stroke to believe these things, especially when they’re being used to promote female leadership, these same arguments have been used to keep women out of the public sphere, deny them the vote and keep them cloistered in a cult of domesticity. And as we Mormon women know, gender essentialism has been used as a handy, “god given” tool to place us on an out of the way and inescapable pedestal.
It has always been more comfortable for me to believe that both women and men have good, bad and ugly qualities. That women are just as likely to be despots, only they historically haven’t been given the chance. And I still believe this. I believe that men and women are equally as beautiful and virtuous, equally as capable and intelligent and equally as subject to human frailty. But I also find myself concurring with Marie Wilson; I do believe that adding women to positions of power would drastically change our society. And while I can’t be sure that women’s increased presence would lead to an increase of virtue, it seems irrefutable to me that evening up the power distribution would change society, simply because the decision makers themselves would have changed. Currently women comprise only 18% of the leadership across all sectors: government, business, culture and religion. Surely even striving for parity would bring profound change to our society.
As I was running and contemplating these things, I remembered an experience I had a couple of weeks ago watching the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. mr. mraynes is an orchestral conductor by profession and so we often go on dates to classical music events so that he can watch and learn from other conductors.
This particular concert was conducted by the former music director of the Colorado Symphony, Marin Alsop. Now for those of you who don’t follow orchestral conductors, Marin Alsop is currently the most famous female conductor in the world. A protégé of Leonard Bernstein, Alsop has conducted some of the best orchestras in the world and was recently appointed as the first female music director of a major American orchestra. And yet she has had to work to overcome the amazing sexism of a profession still firmly rooted in the traditions of the 19th century. At the beginning of her career nobody would hire her, so she started her own orchestra. When she was given the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to lead, the musicians revolted. Despite this, Alsop’s leadership has been an undeniable success; the BSO had a deficit of $19 million when she took over in 2007, today the orchestra is debt free.
But it was not Maestra Alsop’s leadership that impressed me; her conducting and musicianship were astounding, and frankly, it was like nothing I had ever seen. Alsop bounced, crouched and jumped, literally dancing on stage. Her physicality was erotic and erratic, but she was always in control. It was exhilarating to watch and by the end of the concert I found myself breathless, knowing I had experienced the music more fully than I ever had before
There was something, some ineffable quality in the way she feels the music and then interprets it in the movements of her body, that seemed to me uniquely feminine. Marin Alsop strives to make her conducting and appearance androgynous, she does not want the music to be about gender, and yet she is betrayed by her body, by her muscle memories. Because you could see the innate understanding in her body of the irony in the final movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It was as if her body were saying, “I know what it is like to put on a happy face while I’m being discriminated against.” It was her personal experiences, experiences that she has never turned into victimhood, that made the music come alive.
This made me wonder, what are we losing in the gap between current reality and true equality:
How would Wall Street or Capitol Hill be different if women made up that extra 32% that would give them equal representation? Maybe it wouldn’t be different…but maybe it would.
Maybe a conductor like Marin Alsop is truly unique, above gender, but maybe women really have something profound they can offer classical music.
And maybe Mormonism would be the same if women were equally represented in the leadership of the church, but maybe we would have a fuller, deeper understanding of our purpose in mortality and eternity. Maybe we would see and feel God more clearly.
I don’t know the answers but I grieve for these maybes.